In June, more than 4,700 Grand Forks residents filtered through the Alerus Center — and only the Alerus Center — to vote on the future of a downtown’s Arbor Park. It was another sign of the polling consolidation popping up across the state, as voting locations continue a yearslong drop. The move was a first for the city, which had never before held its own single-site election. But in the aftermath of the vote, the debate over the park seemed settled, and Grand Forks leaders were glad to skirt the costs and logistical headache they say can come with polling sites all around town. Then came the lawsuit. A group of about two dozen voters sought to have the election voided, their case stated, in part because using a single-site system was an overreach of city authority. That claim was the result of months of concerns that the new system and its lower number of voting locations would reduce turnout and potentially change the election’s results.
Henry Howe, the voters’ lawyer, later said in court that the city tried to “stack the deck.” The suit is pending on appeal to the North Dakota Supreme Court, and the city’s legal team has denied wrongdoing.
But state voting data show precincts have been falling for decades, with 1,235 precincts in the 1980 presidential election and just 432 in 2016 — an indication that polling sites have followed suit. Those numbers are consistent with staffing, budgetary and logistical concerns expressed by election officials around North Dakota, raising questions of how the state and its voters adapt.