The Debate over Polling Places

There is an interesting debate ongoing about polling places, specifically centered on voting centers. What is probably most interesting is that there is no real debate going on–a growing concensus has emerged among practitioners regarding the benefits of voting centers.

The champion and most effective example of vote centers is Larimer County. In Larimer County, a person can vote anywhere in the County because the county uses electronic poll books that are connected to a secure central server that updates voter registration data in real time, which keeps voters from voting at multiple voting centers. The twist is that Larimer County radically downsized the number of polling places from 143 locations to just 22. These 22 polling places are in centrally located cites that have large parking facilities and are very accessible to the disabled. In many ways, the County stole a page from the big box retailers, who have fewer “mega” locations but that are centrally located so they draw large numbers of voters. The results were also successful; Larimer County reports higher turnout after the switch.

So where is the debate? Well, several studies of polling places have found that reducing the number of polling place reduces turnout. For example, Henry Brady conducted a study examining the effects of consolidating precincts in Los Angeles County for the 2003 recall election. As the paper notes:

…consolidation in Los Angeles County reduced turnout by a substantial 1.88% in the precincts in which the polling location was changed. We also find that voting at the polling place decreases even more, by 3.05% but that an increase of absentee voting of 1.19% makes up for some of this reduction. In addition, we find that the substitution of absentee voting for a reduction in polling place voting is greatest among people of middle age and older whereas younger people are more inclined to simply not vote at all. We also find that the change in polling place location has two effects: a transportation effect resulting from the change in distance to the polling place and a
disruption effect resulting from the information required to find the new polling place and the risk aversion that people feel about going into a new neighborhood. The disruption effect is about five times larger than the transportation effect for the average person who experienced an increased distance to the polling place of about a sixth of a mile, but the effects were roughly equal for someone who had an increased distance of about a mile.

This study is consistent with work done by James Gimpel at the University of Maryland. In his article Distance, Turnout, and the Convenience of Voting he finds that:

Greater distance to election-day precinct sites also increases nonvoting, at least to a point, but the effect is nonlinear. Voters in the very outermost reaches of the metro area use absentee votes in very high proportions. At extremes of distance, voters are sufficiently conditioned to its effects on so much of their daily routine that it plays less of a role in their calculations about voting. These citizens have often already taken steps to cast absentee ballots through the mail as our findings suggest the vast majority of them do so.

Similarly, the abstract for his article Political Participation and the Accessibility Of The Ballot Box notes that:

Commuting to and from precinct locations can be burdensome, particularly on a busy weekday in congested metropolitan areas when many voters are pressed by the demands of everyday living: work, family and school. Some precinct locations are more accessible than others, and for the less accessible ones, at least some people will feel that the cost to get there outweighs any benefit they may reap in terms of personal satisfaction from having fulfilled a civic obligation. Even after controlling for variables that account for the motivation, information and resource levels of local precinct populations, we find that accessibility does make a significant difference to turnout. The evidence points to a non-linear relationship. Distance imposes its heaviest burden on turnout in suburban precincts in the middle ranges of distance (2–5 miles). In the most rural precincts, where in spite of the distance (6–10 miles), travel routes are direct and relatively unimpeded, turnout rates are higher.

There is actually a reason why the Colorado experience has been so successful, even in light of research that suggests it would not be: voter education. The Larimer County clerk engaged in a very strong voter education program before this change was implemented. At the recent APSA meeting, Bob Stein mentioned that the clerk sent each voter four (4) notifications that the change would occur. It may therefore be that the turnout success in Larimer County is partially the voting centers but also partially the increased communication between election official and voter.

The problems with vote centers will likely come when counties start importing the vote center model without adopting the vote center voter education campaign that accompanied it in Larimer County.