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Vote centers: The next big thing in Florida elections?

In an increasingly mobile society, regional super-sites are worth considering, election officials say.
An election worker loads mail ballots in Pinellas County in 2016 [Scott Keeler - Times]
An election worker loads mail ballots in Pinellas County in 2016 [Scott Keeler - Times]
Published Jun. 4, 2018
Updated Jun. 4, 2018

Florida voters spoke loudly in the 2016 presidential election: More than two-thirds of them voted early or by mail, not on Election Day.

That clear preference has county elections officials thinking about making a big change in the future to move to regional vote centers. An increasingly mobile society and the widespread support for early voting makes it inevitable, experts say, that people will embrace voting at regional sites — subject to the approval by the state Legislature.

Voters could go to any vote center in their county and cast a ballot, and the traditional neighborhood polling place at a VFW hall or church would be a thing of the past.

No matter where you live and vote, the correct ballot for your precinct would be provided on demand at a vote center, for the same number of days the county holds early voting, including Election Day.

"The voters have spoken. People want to vote early, and they want to vote by mail," says Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles in Orlando, where 73 percent of voters cast early or mail ballots in 2016.

In a recent statewide survey of all 67 county elections supervisors, more than two-thirds of those participating favored the idea of vote centers, and fewer than a third opposed the idea.

Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough all like the concept.

"We already know how to plan and execute this," said Hillsborough County elections chief Craig Latimer. "Vote centers would eliminate any confusion voters may have about where they are required to vote on Election Day, because they could vote anywhere."

Hernando voted yes for vote centers. So did Collier, Lake, Osceola, St. Lucie, Santa Rosa and Pasco.

"Voters are flocking to early voting more and more and more. Early voting came back in a huge way in 2016," said Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "But I don't think vote centers are ready for prime time in Florida. Let's give it a test drive and see how it works."

Questions persist about whether some counties would have enough big sites, enough parking and enough that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and whether regional voting sites would create new hurdles for low-income voters and those who face transportation challenges.

Cowles said counties must be sensitive to the need to choose vote centers that are accessible by public transportation.

Gerri Kramer, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough elections office, said, "The placement of those sites would be strategically located and would take the availability of public transportation into account."

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who has aggressively promoted voting by mail for more than a decade, does not support the concept of vote centers.

"I really don't think it would be an improvement over our current system," Clark said. She said each county needs to decide what's best for its voters.
In the survey, counties said the advantages of vote centers include allowing people to vote anywhere and a need for fewer poll workers and sites, which could save money.

Hillsborough currently has 390 separate voting precincts and Pinellas has 301.

One of the biggest disadvantages counties cited is a potential backlash from voters over the change from traditional neighborhood precinct voting to a new system.

Counties that expressed opposition include Alachua, Brevard, Duval, Leon, Marion, Monroe and Polk.

Cowles said supervisors are inclined to keep the current voting system in place for now and in the 2020 presidential election and may propose vote centers as a pilot project for the next midterm election in 2022.

Thirteen states use vote centers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The state of Colorado mails ballots to all voters whether they request them or not. Florida supervisors were evenly split on whether they liked that idea.
Florida requires a minimum of eight days and allows up to 14 days of early voting, ending on the Sunday before Election Day.