Highest number of vote centers in place this year

INDIANAPOLIS - More Indiana residents than ever can cast a ballot this year at "vote centers," seven years after the start of the program that allows residents to vote at any approved location in their county, instead of one particular neighborhood precinct.

Residents in 16 out of Indiana's 92 counties can head to designated vote centers during next Tuesday's primary elections, up from seven counties in 2012.

Lawmakers approved pilot programs in 2007 and made the vote centers a statewide option in 2011. Counties with vote centers consolidate their polling locations.

Advocates say having fewer centers available to more people could save money and be more convenient for busy voters, but critics point out that also means fewer locations, which could be stationed farther away from the former neighborhood sites.

Phyllis Kelso, an 84-year-old resident of the Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood who voted early at a center Thursday, used to vote across the street from her house. The vote center closest to her is farther, but she said it's worth it.

"It's better for everybody," she said. "The location doesn't matter to me, just as long as I don't have to stand in line."

Indiana Secretary of State spokeswoman Valerie Kroeger said that some voters "seem to like the convenience" but that others just want to stick with traditional voting.

Part of the challenge is high upfront costs to implement the centers, some county officials said.

Allen County opted not to make the switch, in part because of expenses, including up to an estimated $280,000 cost for hardware. The county also struggled with picking locations large enough and with enough parking to handle voters, and Elections Director Beth Dlug said Election Day data from the centers, as opposed to individual precincts, wouldn't fit on tally cards used to count the vote.

Johnson County implemented vote centers in 2012.

"It's an organizational nightmare, honestly," Johnson County Clerk Susie Misiniec said. "A lot of counties still are struggling to get it adopted. I feel bad."

Tippecanoe County -- one of the first counties to participate in the pilot program -- spent $15,000 for electronic poll books and $24,000 to upgrade its laptops. County Clerk Christa Coffey said savings from reduced workers exceeded upfront costs.

State Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, called vote centers a "mixed bag." Battles said urban areas are ideal locations, but spacing out centers in more rural areas could make transportation difficult and discourage voting. He cautioned placing potential savings on staffing above ensuring that locations are close to residents.

"I don't think they are universally the solution to everything, nor are they universally a bad thing," Battles said. "There are areas where they can and will work very well, (but) particularly in rural Indiana, we're probably not going to see expansion."

Misiniec, as well as Battles and Kroeger, said local control is key to vote centers' success in the state.

"What works for Johnson County may not work for another county," Misiniec said. "There's no standard pattern. You have really got to develop your own plan in how to approach it."

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