Early this year, officials in Sedgwick County, Kansas announced that they were eliminating more than two thirds of their voting locations. That was surprising, but what's more surprising is that Sedgwick County's action is part of a much larger trend, especially on the Plains.
I asked election officials around the country how many polling places they had in 2002 and how many they would have this year. In that short timeframe, many of the dropoffs were dramatic.
Kansas went from 2,332 to 1,490 (the latter number refers to this year's primary, but I wouldn't expect the general election to be much different). In Iowa it was 1,980 to 1,784. Montana went from 694 to 533. North Dakota provided precinct information (sometimes multiple precincts vote in the same location) and showed a drop from 666 to 567. South Dakota didn't have 2006 numbers, but just between '02 and '04 they dropped from 884 to 778. I didn't hear from Nebraska, but an AP report says the state went from 1,492 to 1,366.
Ironically, election officials point to the Help America Vote Act as a major reason there are now fewer places to vote. The 2002 federal law required polling places to be handicapped accessible and to have electronic voting machines. Though the feds helped with the costs to pay for these improvements, the expenses for state and local governments were daunting enough that many decided their best course of action was to reduce the number of places to vote.
These jurisdictions are trying a few approaches to offset the inconvenience of polling places farther from home. They're encouraging voting before Election Day and creating "voting centers" where residents of any precinct can cast a ballot. What's not clear yet is whether, in spite of these efforts, voting will be more of a hassle in these states than it's been in the past.
What also isn't clear is why this trend would be taking place primarily in vast states in the center of the country, places were voting locations were most likely farthest apart already. Of the more than twenty states that responded to my query, only two others saw any sizable decline: West Virginia and Ohio (both in precincts). Officials in both those states mentioned population shifts, rather than HAVA, as a cause.
By the way, Tuesday night we'll have results and analysis of all of the major state and local elections here on the 13th Floor.