Cynthia Juedemann
Help America Vote Act. It sounds pretty innocuous, even appealing. But even the most well-intentioned laws can have unintended consequences.

"It started with HAVA," Kristy Urich, Grundy County's clerk, said. "We had to have very expensive electronic equipment, and it forced us into having fewer polling places."

Grundy County underwent precinct consolidation in the wake of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, meaning it reduced the number of polling places available to voters. Why? To save money.

HAVA requires that federal money be given to states: "to replace punch card voting systems or lever voting systems (as the case may be) in qualifying precincts within that State with a voting system (by purchase, lease, or such other arrangement as may be appropriate) [...]"

But even though federal funds were available, there was only so much money to go around.

"They allocated X amount of dollars per location," Urich said. "And they don't pay for ongoing maintenance. Although they paid for most of the original setup costs, they don't continue to pay."

Without enough federal funds, changing over to more high-tech voting systems was cost prohibitive. And, just like that, places to vote disappeared from Grundy County.

"There was a lot of ongoing legislation [leading up to HAVA]," Urich said. But ultimately, "Our lovely hanging chads created that bill."

What does precinct consolidation mean for voters? Well, it could mean fewer voters bothering to turn out. After Grundy County's precinct consolidation, turnout in the April municipal election dropped from 23.88 percent in 2007 to 4.84 percent in 2008.

Urich attributes the drop in turnout to non-elections. She said that school districts and other political subdivisions no longer have to hold elections each year, and fewer races mean fewer issues to attract voters to the polls.

"If [districts] have the exact same number of people file as positions open, then they consider the position filled, and they don't have an election," Urich said. "With many of the schools doing the nonelections ... it just leaves very little on the ballot."

Crawford County, too, underwent precinct consolidation. Dedee Hamilton, voter registration clerk for the county, told me it had to do with making polling places accessible to disabled persons.

"The reason [the county clerk and staff] consolidated from 18 polling places to seven is because we had a lot of small polling places," Hamilton said. "They determined it would be better to bring all those polling places into one area."

So, to make polling places accessible to disabled persons, as required by HAVA, Crawford County simply got rid of smaller polling places that weren't up to standard. While HAVA does provide for federal funds to equip polling places for the disabled, the amount of funding again wasn't enough. Hamilton also mentioned new equipment requirements when specifying why consolidation occurred.

After consolidation, turnout in the April municipal election for Crawford County dropped from 15.28 percent in 2006 to 8.41 percent in 2007. It rose to 14.23 percent in 2008, but the initial drop is interesting.

Could it be that when the polling place to which a voter usually goes disappears, he doesn't make the effort to travel to a new polling place? Maybe it's farther away, or just unfamiliar. A year or two later, he falls into a new habit — and turnout starts rising again.

Although I didn't speak directly with anyone from Jasper County, turnout dips about 5 percentage points after consolidation there. It drops about 15 percentage points in Phelps County.

This is clearly still anecdotal, but I hope to explore it further. It may be that HAVA is not having the desired effect. The new equipment may make it easier for voters who show up, but ultimately, more may be staying home because of reductions in polling places.

If you have any thoughts about precinct consolidation and how it affects voter turnout, please feel free to leave a comment below, or email me.

About the Author

Cynthia Juedemann