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Will State Budgets Crunch Voters in 2010?

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The slow recovery from the most severe economic downturn since the 1930s has certainly hit working people very hard. Will the accompanying state budget crises hit voters equally hard this election season?

Voting is a challenging process for millions of voters. The number, availability, and location of polling places all have significant effects on whether people are able to cast their ballots. A recent report by the New Organizing Institute found, for example, that:

  • An estimated 1.9 million voters did not cast a ballot in 2008 because they did not know where to go;
  • In 2008, 90,000 provisional ballots were not counted because they were cast in the wrong precinct;
  • A changed polling place alone results in a nearly 2% decrease in turnout for affected voters, costing hundreds of thousands of votes nationwide;
  • Young people and minorities report difficulties in finding where to vote at 2 and 3 times the average rate, respectively.

Cost-cutting by election officials could reduce access to the polls in a number of ways. For example, in Broward County, Florida, where in-person early voting is immensely popular, budget cuts forced the county to reduce the number of early voting sites for August's primary election from 17 to 11, leaving large sections of the county without a convenient early voting site. This means in-person early voting, which can facilitate access to the polls by accommodating more people's schedules and reducing lines on Election Day, was no longer a practical option for some of the county's voters. Broward also eliminated Sunday voting, which has been particularly successful in the African-American community because it is encouraged as a community activity following church services.

In-person early voting in some form exists in as many as 32 states, and has become an increasingly popular method of voting. Election officials need to sustain these sites as well as they can, both in number of sites and hours of operation. They should resist partisan efforts to cut back this critical polling option. Turnout may be less during mid-term elections, but it should not be suppressed further by making voting less accessible.

Cost-cutting can also lead counties to consolidate precincts, impacting Election Day ballot casting. Where consolidations involve precincts that already share a polling place, the change may be an efficient way to save money while also reducing voter confusion. But when precinct cuts mean voters have to turn up to a new polling place on Election Day, like some of the recently approved consolidations in Columbiana County, Ohio, they save dollars but risk votes.

Transportation difficulties, locations that are less convenient to home or work locations, and lack of familiarity with new neighborhoods can all lead to voter confusion and practical difficulties in accessing the polls. What's more, the physical location of voting sites clearly affects voter turnout. A 2005 study concluded that "small differences in distances from the polls can have a significant impact on voter turnout."

Where reductions have been made or might still be made, it is important for election officials to carefully consider plans that treat the citizenry fairly by promoting equal access for everyone. Communities can impress upon their state and local election officials that cost-cutting measures that impact access to the polls are not acceptable. Where cuts are necessary, thoughtful public comment can help ensure that sites are distributed logically and fairly, based on population and geography.

It is also critical that voters be notified if their voting location has been changed or moved. They should also be given information on the range of voting options available in the state, from early voting to absentee balloting.

In these difficult times, state and local elections officials need to make sure economic challenges don't have the added effect of disenfranchising voters in November.

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