William & Mary’s recent Election Law Symposium played host to several of the leading luminaries in election administration, focusing upon issues of election delays, including but not limited to long lines. On more than one occasion, participants discussed Election Day vote centers—large voting “big boxes” of sorts at which voters from multiple different precincts may vote—as a potential instrument to combat Election Day delays (see here for a brief discussion of voting at non-precinct polling places). The subject was particularly appropriate for the panel assembled at W&M, as it included Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a lightning rod for controversy in election administration, whose state has had valuable experience with Election Day vote centers. A recent study by political scientists Robert Stein of Rice University and Greg Vonnahme of the University of Alabama has shown that use of such vote centers can increase voter turnout. Some at the conference expressed concerns about vote centers. Panelists referred to the logistical difficulties of operating voting centers—notably that the centers must have the capacity to provide several different ballots for different precincts, including situations in which different ballots require different paper sizes (a problem rendered moot where sophisticated voting machines are used, as they can easily be programmed to contain multiple electronic ballots).
Voting centers supplement or even operate in place of the local precinct. Implicit in the conception of the voting center, then, is the sentiment that use of the traditional precinct is not a necessary ingredient for successful election administration. Is the precinct an anachronism in Twenty-first Century election administration?
Perhaps the chief virtue of the precinct model is that it allows local citizens to verify the identity of potential electors. Neighbors could vouch for each other as residents of the locale who ought to be voting at that particular precinct. Precincts were also a reasonable means to organize Election Day activities in a world in which voters lived, worked, and socialized within a small geographic radius; voters could be expected to go to a convenient location near to their home. Finally, to the extent to which Election Day is a social exercise in which communities gather together, the local precinct served an important function in providing a physical space for neighbors to gather and exercise their franchise.