Eliminating 146 polls is no solution

Published May 17th 2006 in The Wichita Eagle
Sedgwick County may lose as many polling places to election administration as New Orleans lost to Hurricane Katrina. The Sedgwick County election commissioner is cutting the supply from 208 to 62. New Orleans has reduced the number of voting locations from 275 to 76. Both represent about a 70 percent reduction in polling places -- and a potential huge increase in lines at the polls.

Sedgwick County's reduction came to satisfy the Help America Vote Act requirement that polling places be accessible for people with disabilities, and that each jurisdiction have at least one electronic voting machine that would provide better access for the blind, deaf and so on. But it's plain that slashing the number of polling places so that 100 percent of them can be compliant is not the best solution.

In doing so, Sedgwick County will be creating democracy disabilities for all voters. More people, especially those without cars, will have trouble getting to the polls. The problem will disproportionately affect elderly, nonwhite and, yes, disabled citizens.

Early voting, and the generously long window Kansas sets up for voters to do it, will help. But early voting should always be an option, not compensation for a cutback in other areas.

Mega-polling places have been discussed by groups such as the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Electoral Reform as possible solutions to dwindling poll workers and other problems. Let us be cautious in rushing to the Wal-Mart-ization of our democracy, however.

The best solution is comprehensive reform of the way we run elections. It makes good sense to tear down as many barriers to voting participation as possible. The federal government should take up the responsibility to accomplish this by modernizing our elections. The Help America Vote Act was a first step toward fulfilling this goal, but today that law leaves much to be desired. Many states did not meet the January 2006 deadline to implement all that the law requires.

It's time to go back to the drawing board about how to modernize our elections. Even though we have yet to make voting a constitutional right, we should act as if it truly is one. We need to set a minimum number of polling places per population. We need to decide on universal standards for how elections are run. And we need a national commitment to funding the effort to meet those standards, from polling places to staff training, from ballot design to voter registration procedures.

Americans are capable of anything. I'd like to know why we can't have the best election system in the world, with first-rate, accessible, trustworthy machines, voter rolls that are clean and complete, and polling stations that are in the neighborhood, not off the highway. Consider this food for thought for Sedgwick County residents as many travel to their remaining 62 polling places.

Ryan O'Donnell is communications director for FairVote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit election reform group based in Washington, D.C.


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