By JOE MUELLER
THE CENTER SQUARE
(The Center Square) – Missouri researchers will study the November election in St. Louis County and a California city to measure the effectiveness of allowing voters to cast ballots anywhere in the county.
David Kimball and Anita Manion from the University of Missouri-St. Louis received private funding of $85,935 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab to study how voting centers could replace voting at a designated polling place. MIT awarded a total of $2 million to 18 research projects to study the evolution of election administration by reviewing scientific insights and practical guidance for election administrators.
During the early days of the pandemic, St. Louis County’s election officials realized they might not be able to staff polling places because workers, many older, were concerned about getting COVID-19. During the March 2020 presidential primary, approximately 170 poll workers quit the morning before the election.
Plus, several private organizations declined to offer their buildings as polling places due to the perceived risk of the virus spreading in facilities. The number of polling places declined from 438 in 2016 to 230 in 2020.
The shortages led the St. Louis County Board of Elections to utilize a ballot-on-demand feature in newly purchased equipment.
“They started piloting the process in some smaller elections in 2020 and fully rolled it out for the general election,” Ms. Manion said in an interview with The Center Square. “It was really the pandemic that pushed them to use the technology.”
The change led to two significant cost savings, according to Ms. Manion’s research. The printing of ballots decreased by $80,000 in the 2020 election and rental fees paid to private polling place venues decreased $20,000. The cost for poll workers decreased $35,000, compared to the 2016 election.
While absentee voting in 2020 increased some costs, the voting center system saved approximately $200,000 or 11% less than the 2016 election, according to the research.
Other benefits were identified.
“There were fewer provisional ballots cast,” Ms. Manion said. “One of the main reasons people are turned away is they’re at the wrong polling place. Since that’s no longer an issue, we want to see if that continues in 2022.”
The study also will examine patterns in Fresno, where state law enforces guidelines for voter centers. Missouri law doesn’t prohibit voter centers but doesn’t regulate the practice. Eighteen states currently allow voter centers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“St. Louis County took the initiative on this,” Ms. Manion said. “There’s nothing that prohibited this and they took a bottom-up approach where it’s a top-down approach in California.”
The research also will look at online systems allowing voters to see waiting times at polling places and geocoding to analyze how far voters traveled when casting their ballot.
“We know there have been other jurisdictions within and outside the state who have consulted with St. Louis County about this,” Ms. Manion said. “There has been overwhelmingly positive feedback, but it has been anecdotal. And our aim is to better understand how these changes affect voters.”