Clerk’s office considers closing rural polling locations in 2020

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The Park County Clerk’s Office may reduce the number of polling places in next year’s elections. It would save taxpayer dollars, but force rural residents in places like Heart Mountain, Garland, Wapiti and the South Fork to vote absentee or drive into town on Election Day.

First Deputy Clerk Hans Odde stressed last week that elections officials are only discussing the idea and have not made any decisions.

“There needs to be some community buy-in on this, too,” Odde said. “We have the idea and we think that it probably would save the county some money, it would save the state some money on purchasing equipment, but I don’t think we want to anger our general public, either.”

He said the thought is that the county would operate a handful of “vote centers,” perhaps in Cody, Powell, Meeteetse and possibly Clark. For voters, the upside is that they could cast their ballots at any of the centers; for example, a Powell resident could vote in Cody if they happened to be working over there on Election Day. Under the current system, voters must go to specific places.

The proposed changes would mean folks in rural places like Garland would need to drive to Powell or cast an absentee ballot by mail; Odde noted that’s what Crandall and Yellowstone National Park residents currently do.

He added that many counties are thinking about reducing the number of polling places, in part because of accessibility issues and a struggle to find enough election judges.

“... Our election judges are aging out, essentially,” he said.

Of course, with things still up in the air, Odde noted it’s possible that no polling locations will be shut down and no vote centers created in 2020. For instance, it remains to be seen whether the county will be able to have electronic poll books in place before next year’s primary and general elections; e-poll books provide elections staffers real-time updates on when an individual has voted — something that’s critical if a person is able to vote at multiple centers around the county.

One of the reasons the clerk’s office is considering a change is that, like other counties, it’s preparing to replace its 32 aging voting machines. Consolidation would mean the county could buy fewer machines, which cost thousands of dollars apiece.

The money appears to be in place: The federal government is providing $3 million and the Wyoming Legislature recently allocated another $7 million, which Odde said “should take care of everything statewide.”

Commission Jake Fulkerson said having the funding “is a big deal.”

“Two years ago, we were in trouble; there was no money,” Fulkerson said. “... But the feds kicked in this money and the Legislature stepped up, to their credit.”

Odde recently returned from a massive conference in Denver, organized by the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center (part of a partnership between the nonprofit Center of Internet Security and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security). One of Odde’s takeaways was that cybersecurity is a national security issue. Speakers at the conference warned that hackers may “try and penetrate our website and mess with results that we’ve placed on our website,” Odde said.

He also said the county needs to counteract erroneous election information that might pop up at the local level.

“We have fake news right here in Park County,” Odde said, specifically referring to misinformation that sometimes circulates within local Facebook groups.

He said in an interview that officials will need to monitor postings and immediately contact people who post complaints about things like long lines or difficulty registering to vote.

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