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Cuts in precincts add to voter lines

Akron hit hardest by Summit elections board's reductions in polling sites

By David Knox, Carl Chancellor and Kymberli Hagelberg

Akron Beacon Journal    11 December 2004

Since the 2000 presidential election, the Summit County Board of Elections has eliminated 149 of its precincts more than any other Ohio county.

Why did Summit get rid of so many precincts nearly a quarter of the 624 it had in 2000?

Although the two Democrats on the board remember it differently, the answer given by Republicans, when the decision was made three years ago, was simple: to save money by reducing the need for increasingly hard-to-find poll workers.

The Republicans say they were betting that precincts could be consolidated without inconveniencing voters, thanks to more efficient electronic-voting machines that were expected to replace punch-card machines before this year's presidential election.

That gamble was lost when the statewide switchover in voting methods stalled amid fears that the new machines needed more safeguards against vote tampering.

It's debatable whether new machines would have made a difference. What's certain is there were long lines at many polling places in the county on Election Day.

``We had lines and waits everywhere in the morning, mainly between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m.,'' said county elections Director Bryan C. Williams. ``The longest wait reported to me was 95 minutes.''

Several election watchdog groups reported longer delays as long as three hours in Akron, especially in the city's predominantly African-American wards. The reduction in precincts hit Akron harder than the rest of the county, with the city losing 81 of 234 precincts more than a third.

Williams acknowledged that having fewer precincts, coupled with ``the unprecedented voter-registration effort'' and an unusually high turnout, made for a flood of inexperienced voters swamping poll workers.

Democrats' criticism

The two Democrats on the four-member county board of elections say it was a mistake to cut so many precincts.

``I think that caused us a lot of problems in this election,'' said Russell M. Pry, who also is chairman of the Summit County Democratic Party. ``I think the precincts are too large.''

Wayne Jones, the board's other Democrat, agreed: ``Common sense would tell you it's a factor: If you have more people shopping at your store, the checkout lines will be longer.''

The loss of so many precincts certainly meant that many more registered voters are in the county's remaining 475 precincts.

Four years ago, Summit County had an average of 568 registered voters per precinct. Today, the countywide average is 777. In Akron, the average ballooned higher to 855 voters per precinct.

``That's way too high,'' Jones said. ``I did not want to go over 600 because of the lines that it would cause.''

State mandate?

But both Jones and Pry said they understood that the county had no choice but to reduce precincts. ``We were under a mandate from the secretary of state to consolidate,'' Pry said.

But that's not true, said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell. ``There's no requirement for reductions.''

Ohio law states only that precincts should have fewer than 1,400 registered voters. Also, precinct boundaries must follow census-block borders.

Alex Arshinkoff, the county's Republican chairman and one of two GOP members of the elections board, said he knew the county wasn't forced to reduce the precincts. ``It wasn't a requirement,'' he said. ``We were trying to save the taxpayers some money.''

Arshinkoff's response

Arshinkoff defended the reduction, saying many factors must be weighed in determining the best number of precincts, especially the huge -off in voter turnout in primaries and off-year elections.

``We could create 100 or 200 more precincts, but then there'd be four people voting in primaries'' in some precincts, he said. ``It costs the very same to hold a primary as a general election.''

Another costly problem is the difficulty of finding qualified poll workers, he said. Ohio law requires four workers two Democrats and two Republicans for each precinct.

Arshinkoff did not rule out adding precincts, noting that the county had 800 when he became GOP chairman in 1978. ``We need to study the facts to see where we are,'' he said. ``There are no easy answers.''

As an example of the difficulty of finding the proper balance, Arshinkoff questioned the validity of using the number of registered voters to compare precincts, noting that the rolls of city voters are bloated with thousands of seldom- or never-seen voters.

Turnout's impact

But the crunch of voters who showed up at the polls also jumped much higher in Akron. The average number of ballots cast per precinct increased 89 percent compared with four years ago. In four of the city's 10 wards 2, 3, 5 and 9 the number of voters per precinct more than doubled.

The rest of the county saw only a 45 percent increase.

Wayne Jones argued that any delay at the polls causes more hardship for city voters, who are more likely to be Democrats. That's because urban voters tend to be working-class people who have to vote in the early morning or not at all. ``Hourly people cannot just leave work to vote,'' he said. ``If you profile our voters, they're blue-collar workers.''

How important are city voters to the success of Democrats at the polls? Enough to change Summit County from blue to red.

John Kerry won Summit County by 38,000 votes, according to official returns. Take Akron's votes out of the totals, and President Bush would have won the county by 423 votes.

While the impact of the reduction in precincts on the election can be debated, it's clear that things didn't go as forecast when the decision to consolidate was made three years ago.

History of cuts

``At the time, the goal was 650 (registered) voters per precinct,'' said Tom Wagner, a Republican who served as elections director from 1992 until July 2003 and now works for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Wagner said revamping the precincts was prompted by congressional redistricting required by the U.S. Constitution to reflect population shifts reported by the 2000 census. ``Since new district lines had to be drawn, we decided to redraw the precincts as well,'' he said.

Wagner said saving money was the motive for eliminating precincts. When the first round of cuts which reduced the number of precincts in the county from 624 to 507 was announced in August 2001, Wagner estimated the savings at $45,000 for each countywide election.

Most of the savings was in personnel costs: Fewer precincts meant fewer poll workers, who are paid $95 each.

Last year, a second round of cuts reduced the number of precincts to 475, after the elections board raised the bar for the number of registered voters per precinct from 650 to 800.

New voting machines

Wagner said the plan to eliminate precincts assumed that the increased number of voters at the remaining polls could be handled by the new generation of electronic voting machines that would speed the voting process.

The new machines were expected to be installed in time for this year's presidential election after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The law provided millions of dollars for upgrading voting equipment across the nation in response to the widespread problems encountered in Florida with aging punch-card voting machines used in the 2000 presidential election.

But hopes to replace Summit's machines were derailed earlier this year amid complaints that the electronic machines were vulnerable to undetectable vote fraud because they produced no paper record. In response, the Ohio legislature mandated that all electronic voting machines in use in the state beginning in 2006 provide a paper record that could be verified by the voter before leaving the polls.

But even if the new machines had been used last month, it's questionable whether they would have solved the problem of Akron's long lines. That's because this year's surge in voter registration meant many precincts exceed the target of 800 registered voters.

Forty-five of the city's 153 precincts have more than 900 registered voters, and 10 top 1,000.

Thirty-three other precincts in the county also top 900.

Bryan Williams, who replaced Wagner as elections director, said the county had hoped to increase the number of poll workers from four to six in some precincts that had more than 900 registered voters, but it managed to do that in only 29 precincts for last month's elections.

Stark's experience

While Summit was eliminating precincts, other Ohio counties held off. More than half of the state's 88 counties either added precincts or kept the same number compared with four years ago, according to Ohio secretary of state records.

Stark was one of the counties that didn't eliminate precincts.

Stark also had few complaints about long lines.

Jeffrey Matthews, Stark's elections director, said there were isolated reports of waits of as long as two hours in a few fast-growing suburban areas. But voters in city precincts in Canton or Massillon generally were out in less than 30 minutes.

Matthews said he hopes to ease the crunch in the growing suburban areas ``by adding a few (precincts) in the next few years.''

But he predicted that longer lines will be back in the 2008 presidential election. That's because he doubts the Help America Vote Act will provide sufficient money to buy enough new voting machines.

``There's nothing that prohibits a county from investing in additional units,'' he said. ``But there has to be... a recognition by local and state government that more money is needed.''

Matthews is pessimistic about more money being spent on elections. ``We've always traditionally done it on the cheap,'' he said. ``The results you see are longer lines, more mistakes.

``I think the public has a right to demand more than that; I think they should demand more than that.''

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