More than $800,000 worth of new voting equipment landed in Monroe County on Monday. The delivery came from Hart Intercivic, based in Austin Texas.
It was no surprise. That was the expected news out of Monroe County’s election board meeting on Thursday afternoon. Hart Intercivic had indicated the delivery would come in early February.
The delivery of a semi-trailer-truck load worth of election equipment, and preliminary testing of the equipment was one of the major topics of discussion at the board’s meeting.
Another main topic was raised during public commentary by two members of the College Democrats at Indiana University Bloomington. They advocated for establishing the Indiana Memorial Union as a universal vote center, where voters from any precinct could cast a ballot.
Board members reviewed some of the reasons why that can’t happen this year, but might in the future.
The new voting equipment was delivered about 60 days before early voting starts in Monroe County’s primary elections. April 7 is the start of the early voting period, which lasts through May 4, the day before Primary Election Day on May 5.
Setting that timeline for early voting was one of the bits of housekeeping business handled by Monroe County’s election board at its regular meeting held on Thursday. Early voting will take place at the renovated space at Election Central, in the old Johnson Hardware building, at 7th and Madison streets, without a second satellite location.
The Square Beacon was able to confirm election supervisor Karen Wheeler’s report at the board meeting that those renovations are virtually complete, by dropping by Election Central on Thursday afternoon.
At the board meeting, Wheeler also gave a standard plug for recruitment of the roughly 360 poll workers who’ll be needed to staff the polls on Election Day. “Everyone is paid,” Wheeler said. The amount is $135 day with another $25 for food and $10-25 for training, she said. People who are interested in stepping up to help out by working the polls can call 812-349-2690.
Other housekeeping business for the board included an update on a $50 fine assessed to Bloomington councilmember Steve Volan at the board’s early December meeting, for a one-day late filing of his campaign finance report. Board member Carolyn VandeWiele reported that Volan had told her he’d be paying the fine.
The board voted at Thursday’s meeting to levy a $50 fine on former city councilmember Allison Chopra, for missing a similar deadline. VandeWiele cited some correspondence from Chopra that indicated an acknowledgment that the deadline had been missed. By board policy the fines are levied only upon a third offense.
Election supervisor Karen Wheeler briefed the board on the delivery of the new equipment, which arrived from Hart Intercivic on Monday. The semi-truck that pulled in was unloaded with “many helping hands,” Wheeler said. That night, the county’s IT team worked until around 11:30 p.m. to test every piece of the new equipment, Wheeler said. Once it was confirmed that the new equipment was all in working order, on Wednesday all the old equipment was sent back to Hart Intercivic for destruction.
Election board president Hal Turner drew out the fact that in the new system a certified paper ballot is stored securely for every voter and that the voting machines are not connected to the internet.
Training of staff on the new equipment will start on Tuesday with instructors from Hart Intercivic, Wheeler said.
Wheeler also reported that the first 20 new electronic poll books are supposed to arrive on Feb. 19 and will be available for training.
IMU as a Voting Center?
During public commentary time, the election board heard from two representatives of the College Democrats at Indiana University Bloomington, Ian Nowlin and Alessia Modjarrad. They advocated for establishing the Indiana Memorial Union as a vote center—a place where someone from anywhere in the county could vote. It would mean that students from all parts of campus and the city would have a convenient place to vote.
Modjarrad said that a residents of McNutt and Collins dormitories had to vote at the Unitarian Universalist Church, when a more natural location would be the IMU.
During the back-and-forth between the IU students and the board, election supervisor Karen Wheeler provided a requested stat: 4,946 voters are eligible to vote at IMU, which is already a polling station for a few precincts. The 4,946 total is just around 10 percent of IU students.
Board members responded favorably to the pitch for IMU as a vote center, but they pointed out that there are deal-breakers for this year. One is that it’s not possible under Indiana law to have some polling locations serve as vote centers, where anyone can vote, and others where just people from a particular precinct can vote. The other deal-breaking aspect of the idea is the rigorous process involved in vetting a proposed set of voting center locations.
Indiana’s secretary of state’s website outlines seven steps for establishing vote centers: resolutions passed by county council and county commissioners; formation of a study committee; drafting a vote center plan; 30-day public comment period; election board approval; filing of plan with the state.
The college Democrats told the board that they’d hoped to present a bi-partisan proposal to them that day, but that their understanding was that the Republican Party chair for Monroe County was against having IMU as a vote center.
Republic Party chair William Ellis responded to an emailed question from The Square Beacon by saying the Republican Party had supported establishing IMU as a multiple-precinct polling location, and he’d served on the election board when that decision was made. There’d been no central campus location before then, he said.
Ellis said making IMU a vote center where anyone could vote amounted to “shifting the goalposts” in a way that undermined the spirit of cooperation to establish IMU as a central, campus voting location.
Ellis pointed out that the early voting location, at Election Central in downtown Bloomington, gives easy access to student voters for around a month before Election Day. Reducing the number of voting locations in rural parts of the county, Ellis said, which would mean longer drives for voters who are typically more elderly and have mobility issues. The Republican Party doesn’t support disenfranchising those kinds of voters, he said.
After the board meeting, Carolyn VandeWiele told The Square Beacon that Ellis was someone with whom it is possible to have a conversation about the issue of vote centers. She did not hear a simple no from him, but rather a willingness to at least talk about the challenges.
Of Indiana’s 92 counties, 39 of them have adopted a vote center approach.
The idea of vote centers is not new in Monroe County. In December 2011 the election board voted 2–1 in favor of them. But it requires a unanimous vote on the three-member board. The current board includes the county clerk, Nicole Browne, a Democrat, which is the slot VandeWiele fills, and a Republican, who is Hal Turner.
For his part, at the board meeting, Turner expressed sentiments similar to those of Ellis, in that Turner wants to make sure that rural voters are not inconvenienced as a tradeoff for more convenience for urban voters.
Turner has told The Square Beacon previously that another question to be answered is whether vote centers would actually save money in Monroe County. Turner also cited as crucial the need to make sure that the sites selected for vote centers are accessible, not just geographically convenient.