White County moved a step closer to having vote centers this week at a meeting of the White County Quorum Court’s Buildings and Grounds/Personnel and Public Safety Committee.

White County Judge Michael Lincoln asked the committee Monday night to allow the county to work with County Attorney Jason Owens to develop an ordinance on voting centers to present to the full Quorum Court in November or December. The committee granted his request.

White County Election Commission Chairman Robert Allen had told the committee that “more than 50 percent of the counties in Arkansas have voting centers right now. That’s where it’s all going.”

“With the new equipment that we have, it was really designed for what we want, vote centers,” Allen said. ... “The vote centers are going to act exactly like early voting. Wherever you see a ‘vote here sign,’ you can vote. You don’t have to go to a special place to vote, so that is going to make it real convenient for anyone that wants to vote. We want to get as many people to be able to vote as we can so that’s my goal to present to you guys a plan.”

He said there have been cases where residents have had to drive 3 or 4 miles in order to vote since they were on the other side of the voting line. Vote centers, according to Allen, would make that easier.

As an example, Allen said, “we have a soccer or baseball game at a field and some of the people live in different parts of the county and they come over here for their games. It is getting close to 7:30 [p.m.]. The polls close at 7:30. They’ve got to get all the way back to Bradford before 7:30 to vote. The game ends a little bit after seven. Maybe they can make it, maybe they can’t make it, but there are four places here in Searcy they can stop off and vote in. That’s the advantage of it right there.”

He said on election day it could be busy in one location with a long line at the Carmichael Community Center or at Downtown Church of Christ, but if voters were to drive around, they might find another location without a long wait and could vote there. “It’s going to be convenient,” he said.

Allen said the voting is “all electronic” and every vote center would have to have “Wi-Fi hot spots.”

“Right now, we have four locations that would not qualify for it,” he said. Those voting places are Floyd, Georgetown, Griffithville and the Sixteenth Section Church off Arkansas Highway 267 in the McRae area.

Lincoln asked if those locations could be vote centers if they could get service, and Allen said “absolutely. I want to have as many places for people to vote that are convenient. I don’t want to close any vote center down. As we get more Mi-Fi [portable Wi-Fi] connections up in towers in different parts of the county, we are going to have this and they’ll need to get more vote centers.”

Lincoln clarified that “what you are telling the committee on the day of election, if they were in Beebe but live in Searcy that they could vote in Beebe before they come home?” Allen said, “That is correct.”

White County has 28 voting sites right now, according to Allen. He said before the commission would close any site because of the lack of Wi-Fi, the site would need to be checked for connection. That response followed a question from Justice of the Peace Chris Boaz on whether anyone had checked the Floyd site since there is a new Verizon tower up on the hillside to the west of the volunteer fire department.

“I’m here to work with you,” Allen told Boaz, adding that the Floyd location also could be moved.

Lincoln said the situation with Wi-Fi “is pretty fluid” because “there is a lot of broadband development that’s taking place in our county right now, a lot of fiber optic that is being put in, a lot of towers are being added. I lost count of how many companies have come applying for the grant money that is available through the state. There is lots of development ... .”

Lincoln told Boaz and JP Debra Lange of Georgetown if they knew a location that could possibly be revived to please let Allen know about it.

Election Coordinator Tara McKnight said the tablets are connected to the Wi-Fi on the day of voting; “everything else is just plugging it in and battery operated.” She said the tallying of the votes is done by the big box, which has a USB stick in it and the paper reel and the paper ballots underneath. “It’s not connected to the Wi-Fi.”

Owens said that while voting centers “is a trend that is happening across the state, what I see is the same voter issue applies that you want to make sure that nobody votes more than once. It’s the issue you want to be aware of and the statute asks four questions about confirming the identity [of the person voting] to make sure this is indeed a registered voter. There are lots of security measures in place.”

JP Sue Liles asked Allen and McKnight if the vote centers would make more or less work for them and would it be more complicated.

“It’s actually a little bit easier because we will have one stick for the entire county,” McKnight said. She used Searcy’s special election on its 1-percent tax Nov. 9 as an example. “When I’m programming my ballot, I have to make four different polling locations and I have to make sure the right wards go under the right polling locations and the right stick gets the right ballot and that machine gets to the right location.

“How this is going to be is, every machine is going to get the same exact data, so every location will have the same exact stuff from the poll book to the DS200 [voting machine] to the express vote, so it really is a little bit easier on us because ... your ballot will automatically be there whether you’re at the right one [polling location] or not. I will say in 2020, we had a lot of people that didn’t want to change locations so they voted a provisional ballot.”

Liles asked, “So if I go to Beebe to vote, it won’t pull up a Beebe ballot for me, I will have a Searcy ballot?” McKnight responded, “Your name is connected to your barcode and that goes in programming and everybody has their own barcode. It’s just like early voting,” which is usually done at one voting site.

Liles also wanted to know if more workers would be needed with vote centers.

“It can have the same amount of polling places and the same amount of workers; it won’t change the fact,” White County Clerk Carla Barnett said. “I will say I’m sure that some sites will probably have more people come to them; some are more accessible. We will just have to play with that and figure out if we need more machines at certain places.

“The first one [election] will be trial and error and after that we can say, ‘Hey, we had a lot of people vote here, we are going to add new machines here,’ but we will more than likely set it up like we’ve been seeing it up with the same amount of workers and the same amount of people.”

Liles also asked about redistricting because of the 2020 U.S. Census numbers, and Barnett said, “We are still waiting on our preliminary maps. We haven’t gotten that yet. We are expecting to have a preliminary map that the election commission will look over.” She said some of the districts will change. Lincoln said the change will be due to population growth in the Beebe area. Beebe went from a population of 7,315 in the 2010 census to 8,437 in 2020.

Allen said what is nice about the voting machines is that if one area needs more on election day, the commission will be able to move them.

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