Missoula County is expected to partner with the nationally renowned nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice to research the effects of polling place consolidation.
Denver Henderson, who sits on the county’s Election Advisory Committee, recently asked Peter Miller, a researcher at the Brennan Center, to look at the effects on voting behavior over time after the reduction in the number of polling places in Cascade and Yellowstone counties.
“The conventional wisdom is when you consolidate and reduce the number of places people can cast ballots, you wind up with potentially longer lines and fewer people casting ballots. But we don’t know that, and that’s why we need to do the study,” Henderson said on Tuesday.
In recent years, Yellowstone County, which is Montana’s most populous, consolidated polling places within Billings to MetraPark to try to improve the efficiency and administration of elections. The move didn’t affect outlying communities, which continue to have their own polling places. During the past decade, Cascade County also dramatically dropped the number of polling places in Great Falls, part of a larger movement across the nation as more voters cast mail-in ballots.
“We have 28 polling places, which is way more than anywhere else in the state,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said on Tuesday. “That costs a lot of money, and a lot of volunteer time with a shrinking volunteer base. So we’re asking for an analysis of continuing to operate like this.”
Commissioner Josh Slotnick added that they have great interest in voter access, and won’t try to save money at the cost of fewer people voting.
“We want to crunch the numbers so we can make a clear decision on whether poll consolidating is a good thing or a bad thing,” Slotnick said.
Miller said a “tremendous amount of effort” is taking place to try to reduce or even reverse the decline in voter turnout nationally, as well as in the western world in general. A series of academic studies looked at the distance between voters and their polling places, with two finding that the greater the distance voters have to travel to their polling place, the fewer votes are cast. But Miller is quick to add that no researchers studied the impact over time.
Some studies also looked at the impact of mail-in ballots, finding that people who live 15 miles away from the polling place aren’t likely to vote in person, but will fill out the ballot to drop into the mail.
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“The complex relationships between polling place accessibility, election administration, and voting behavior have broad relevance to academic inquiries into democratic representation, participation in elections, and policymaking questions related to the conduct of elections,” Miller wrote in a letter to the Missoula County Commission.
“Being able to observe the consolidation of polling places in these counties and how registered voters in these counties behave gives us an opportunity to learn about these relationships in the context of a natural experiment,” he wrote.
Miller expects that Missoula County can easily gather voter turnout information from Cascade and Yellowstone counties, as well as addresses for both the voter and the polling places during a number of election cycles.
“For example, using a voter registration list from 2004 to estimate voting behavior in 2010 would result in a substantial number of missing observations,” he wrote.
He also requested data and the amount of money spent to conduct elections over time to explore the statistical relationship between polling place voting and the cost of elections.
Miller anticipates that once he has the data, he could convey the results of a statistical analysis within a month and provide preliminary results to the county. Eventually, he hopes to turn his findings into an article in a peer-reviewed academic journal, which is why he’s offering to do the analysis for free.
The county expects to have a letter ready next week that outlines their agreement on the study.
“It seems like a really good idea to have the data before we make any consolidation decisions,” Slotnick said. “Who knows — it may even have a positive impact. I’m glad we can engage a professional organization to do the research.”