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Imagine voting at local mall, uptown hotel

Plan would let you cast ballot at a place more convenient to work

SHARIF DURHAMS      Charlotte Observer    25 July 2005

RALEIGH - Forget lining up before or after work on Election Day.

Instead, imagine popping over to a mall, a shopping center or an uptown hotel ballroom and voting during lunch rather than trekking back to a polling place near your home.

That's the way state elections officials and some lawmakers mostly Democrats are selling the idea of voting "super precincts." They want to experiment with letting voters cast ballots at sites anywhere in a city or county. It would be impossible to go to the wrong precinct.

The experiment would start in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, either for this fall's local elections or during the primary vote in 2006. The state Senate approved the change 48-0, and the House plans to debate a similar version today.

Elections officials acknowledge a benefit for them: there would be fewer super centers than there are precincts, requiring fewer poll workers in an era when they're hard to recruit. Elections officials in Wake, Guilford and Mecklenburg say they're intrigued by the idea.

"From an administrative standpoint, it's very helpful," said Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson, who described super precincts as "the craze that's sweeping the nation" among elections officials.

But Republicans say it would make voting inconvenient in rural areas and ease the Democrats' get-out-the-vote effort. Court battles erupted last year over voters who went to the wrong precinct; they overwhelmingly voted for Democrats.

"I have concerns it will have an effect on the integrity of the vote," said Bill Peaslee, political director for the state GOP.

Rep. Bill Faison, a Democrat representing Orange County, also argued that many rural voters would have to drive too far.

Peaslee also argued that super precincts could lead to voter fraud, because poll workers are less likely to know whether someone is registered in a certain neighborhood.

Dickerson compares the super precincts to early voting, which lets voters cast ballots at a few locations before an election.

There would be more super precincts than there are early voting sites, but fewer places to vote than typical on election day. Mecklenburg, for instance, had nearly 200 precincts in November 2004. The county had 13 early voting sites. Dickerson guessed that the county could have 50 super precincts.

Some Colorado towns tried the super precincts in 2004 and officials declared it a success. Florida officials are looking at super precincts statewide.

The new system would require all poll registries to be electronic. Each site would need Internet-connected computers and a program that would let workers at other centers know when someone has cast a ballot. That prevents a person from voting more than once.

The benefit for elections officials: It will end all paper-and-pen poll registries and make it easier to reconcile elections after polls close, Dickerson said.

Dickerson noted another advantage: The current proposal would let officials set up polls on private property rather than having all of them in public buildings, such as schools. Dickerson said voting machines could be placed at malls and shopping centers, which are designed to be convenient for visitors and have ample parking.

"You think (a mall) would say no?" Dickerson joked.

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