Clark County to switch from precinct locations to vote centers
Long gone will be the days of waking up early on Election Day to stand in line at a local precinct and cast a ballot before heading off to work or scrambling to get home early in the evening to vote before the polls close in Clark County.
Election officials debuted to the public Monday night a new system of Election Day voting known as “vote centers” that will take effect in 2018. Voters will be able to travel to any of the 160 or so vote centers across the county on Election Day to cast their ballot — akin to the system already in place during early voting — instead of being required to travel to a specific assigned precinct near their home to vote.
Lawmakers tried to enshrine the concept of vote centers into state law through language in several bills during the 2017 session, including a piece of legislation sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson that made it to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s desk. But Sandoval vetoed the measure, which would have enabled county election officials to establish vote centers, saying Nevada is “one of the most open and accessible election systems in the country,” and he didn’t see a “compelling need to change it.”
Still, Clark County is moving forward to implement vote centers starting in the 2018 primary election since the practice isn’t expressly allowed or prohibited by state law. The county plans to have about 160 vote centers open on Election Day in place of the 279 precincts in use during the 2016 election.
The proposed sites were selected based on whether they are ADA-compliant, have adequate parking and space to accommodate a high volume of voters and whether they have previously seen a high volume of voters on Election Day. The sites are also no farther than two miles apart in non-commercial areas in the urban area, and the rural areas will maintain their existing polling sites.
Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria said the county has one vote center for every 6,000 voters, well under the one for every 10,000 voter threshold statutorily required in Colorado and the one for every 30,000 threshold in Indiana. The election department also looked at the precincts that typically have the highest Election Day turnout and added extra polling sites in those parts of the county, he said.
“We’re well below that ratio, and I think we started off as a real good spot as far as providing the number of sites,” Gloria said.
The county is accepting suggestions for any additional polling sites beyond the 160 proposed vote centers and will finalize the site list by October 2017.
Vote centers have been used in the city of Henderson for its municipal elections since 2007, and all cities — including Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Boulder City — used the system in their 2017 municipal elections. But 2018 will be the first time the system is implemented countywide.
Gloria said that vote center-style voting will reduce the number of provisional ballots cast by voters who can’t cast a normal ballot because they are at the wrong polling place since all ballots will be available at all of the vote centers. Voters who submit provisional ballots must provide a written affirmation along with their ballot including the reason they voted provisionally.
Gloria said that roughly two-thirds of the 5,600 provisional ballots cast in the 2016 election were cast because voters were at the wrong precinct, something that will no longer be a problem with vote centers.
The overall goal of vote centers is to increase accessibility to the polls for people who have difficulty getting somewhere to vote on Election Day, Gloria said. But the implementation of vote centers in Clark County will not change the existing early voting period, in which about 63 percent of voters typically cast their ballots.
“It is a change for voters, but it is a change that’s really going to make it easier for them,” Gloria said.
The secretary of state’s office is leaving the decision whether to implement vote centers up to each county. Carson City already uses vote center-style voting with its two polling locations at the community center and courthouse.
Larimer County, Colorado, was the first jurisdiction in the country to implement vote centers in 2003. Since then, three states have allowed jurisdictions to use vote centers on Election Day, twelve states and the District of Columbia allow their use for early voting only and eight states allow them for both early voting and on Election Day.
If used correctly, vote centers can improve efficiency and cut costs for elections departments and make voting more convenient for citizens. But they also require an upfront investment in technology and a bit of guesswork from elections officials who can’t be sure exactly which voting sites will be the most popular and where to devote their resources — plus they can confuse voters who are used to the traditional precinct-style voting system.
The state Democratic Party heralded the switch to vote centers as a move toward increasing accessibility to the polls.
“Democrats believe in expanding access to the ballot box so that more Nevada voters can easily engage in the political process,” said party spokesman Stewart Boss in an email.
But the state Republican Party agrees with Sandoval and doesn’t see a need for the change.
“We pretty much agree with the veto message from the governor,” said Greg Bailor, executive director of the party. “Seventy percent or more of Nevadans cast their votes early. We don’t see much of a need to change the system that’s in place.”
Gloria expects that some of the most popular early voting sites — such as the Galleria Mall, Meadows Mall, Boulevard Mall and Centennial Center — will also be among the more popular vote centers. He said that elections officials will gather the information they need during the first election to decide where to best devote their resources and decrease lines on Election Day.
“The first year, the first two times we use vote centers, we’re going to learn a lot, just like we did with early voting,” Gloria said.
Vote centers will also allow the county to eliminate its mail-ballot districts, in which voters in outlying precincts were automatically sent vote by mail ballots because they did not have a designated polling place. Those voters will now be able to go to any vote center to cast their ballot in person or request a mail-in ballot.
An appropriations bill passed during the 2017 session will give the Clark County Elections Department $4.5 million for new voting machines and other technology to ensure the vote centers run smoothly. For instance, the county already uses electronic poll books during early voting to ensure that voters aren’t attempting to vote at multiple locations, technology that will be used at all vote centers on Election Day as well, only now voters will sign in electronically instead of signing a paper book.
“That’s critical to making something like this work because in real time it writes to our database that this person has voted,” Gloria said. “We’re in the process of implementing it so we’ll have enough for the vote centers next year.”
Asked about the security of the electronic voting systems, Gloria said the county will continue to duplicate all of the security measures currently in place for early voting.
“With the electronic sign in, there’s actually a real time check with that voter, so the integrity of the data is safer electronically than it would’ve been on paper,” Gloria said.
Elections officials will present the new equipment and provide a demonstration of the voting machines and electronic poll books on October 10 at the Clark County Government Center.
Feature photo: A couple walks past a voting sign during primary election day at Sahara West Library on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.