Polling pinch: As total voting sites drop, do elections suffer?
GRAND FORKS — In June, more than 4,700 Grand Forks residents filtered through the Alerus Center—and only the Alerus Center—to vote on the future of a downtown's Arbor Park. It was another sign of the polling consolidation popping up across the state, as voting locations continue a yearslong drop.
The move was a first for the city, which had never before held its own single-site election. But in the aftermath of the vote, the debate over the park seemed settled, and Grand Forks leaders were glad to skirt the costs and logistical headache they say can come with polling sites all around town.
Then came the lawsuit.
A group of about two dozen voters sought to have the election voided, their case stated, in part because using a single-site system was an overreach of city authority. That claim was the result of months of concerns that the new system and its lower number of voting locations would reduce turnout and potentially change the election's results.
Henry Howe, the voters' lawyer, later said in court that the city tried to "stack the deck." The suit is pending on appeal to the North Dakota Supreme Court, and the city's legal team has denied wrongdoing.
But state voting data show precincts have been falling for decades, with 1,235 precincts in the 1980 presidential election and just 432 in 2016—an indication that polling sites have followed suit. Those numbers are consistent with staffing, budgetary and logistical concerns expressed by election officials around North Dakota, raising questions of how the state and its voters adapt.
The trend holds up around the country. Dana Harsell, an associate professor of political science and public administration at UND, said the 2008 presidential election had 132,237 voting locations. In 2016, just 116,990.
Part of the pressure, voting experts say, has come from the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, which added to elections' cost and logistical burdens—like technological requirements for voting machines.
Harsell added that ages of election workers are increasingly skewing older, too, which can make it harder to staff big elections every two to four years. There's also evidence, he said, that increasing pay for election workers has made polling sites increasingly expensive in sparsely populated rural areas, forcing consolidation.
"We certainly know it is a trend, and you could say it's been a trend since the 1950s," Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said. "Because we've steadily dwindled down over the years."
Voting in Grand Forks
The same trends are affecting voting in Grand Forks. City leaders approved a seven-location plan for the 2018 elections last week in a 5-2 committee vote expected to be confirmed by the full Council Monday, Dec. 4. A separate plan for just one site has also drawn support, and City Council President Dana Sande has argued that such a plan helps voters remember where to go vote.
City Clerk Sherie Lundmark said that would be the latest in a reduction from 26 polling sites in 2004. She said much of that can be attributed to schools no longer wanting to take security risks with visitors, but she said voters sometimes express discomfort entering an unfamiliar house of worship, too. And it's far easier for technicians to service machines at one site than bounce from one precinct to the next on Election Day.
Officials around the state say the same. In Minot, the 2018 primary and general elections are expected to be held at just one citywide location, and special elections have long been held in just one spot. In Fargo, polling sites have dwindled in the last decade from 39 to 16 in the most recent presidential contest. North Dakota's local officials offer a range of reasons for scaling back polling sites, but most often say it's because of logistical issues.
Debra Smestad, Ward County auditor and treasurer, said schools are increasingly wary of the security risks that accompany the visiting public. Consolidation in MInot also saves the headache of finding election workers.
"I can make phone calls for eight, nine weeks in advance trying to fill my precincts, and then trying to make sure I have substitutes," she said. "It's a full-time job for a while, working evenings just trying to find people."
A 'double-edged sword'
But that hasn't calmed concerns that shrinking polling sites are bad for voter access. Former City Council member and state representative Eliot Glassheim spoke before city leaders last week as they weighed their plans for 2018 elections, urging them to keep as many polling sites as possible. He predicted as many as 400 votes lost—to car trouble, cross-town travel and the like—if all voting was held at the Alerus Center.
"It seems to me the council's job is to make it as easy as possible for people to vote," he said. "I can't prove you're going to lose 400 votes. You can't prove you're not going to lose 400 votes. But just as an older politician, that seems about right to me."
But many North Dakota officials say they aren't so sure. It's easier to know where to go when there are fewer sites, Smestad said. Eschewing schools also means voters avoid an early-morning crush of student drop-offs, Silrum added.
Harsell said it's true that fewer polling sites could mean curtailed voter access. But he said that, along with diminishing physical Election Day voting sites have come other methods of enfranchisement, like early voting, vote-by-mail and increased absentee ballot use.
According to state data, Harsell said, nearly 40 percent of North Dakota's votes in the 2016 presidential election were cast before Election Day—so It's not clear if the net result has been harmful or beneficial.
"The more we open up alternative methods to voting outside of the traditional polling place on Election Day, the more we're going to see fewer physical locations to vote," he said. "It's a double-edged sword.