Voting goes mobile in Williston10/09/08

Pilot program will focus on seniors

Oct. 9, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Can’t get out to vote? If you’re a senior, the polling place may be coming to you.

Williston is participating in a first-ever statewide mobile voting effort. Over the next week, Town Clerk Deb Beckett and a pair of election workers will bring voting equipment to four senior housing complexes. Williston is one of about 20 municipalities using mobile voting this year.

Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said mobile polling could help increase turnout in the November election — and possibly well into the future.

“Within the next 20 years, 30 percent of Vermonters are going to be over 65,” she said. “There’s no reason to believe that as people age they are going to want to stop voting.”

The mobile equipment is simple: a tabletop “booth” made of cardboard that encloses voters on three sides and a locked wooden ballot box.

The box will be stored in the vault at Town Hall until the Nov. 4 election. Then the ballots will be machine counted along with all the others cast that day.

Voters at the four Williston mobile voting locations can also take an absentee ballot and cast it any time before the polls close on Election Day, Beckett said. Those who are not registered to vote can do so on the spot.

Mobile polling will take place in Williston over the next seven days. Residents of Eagle Crest Senior Housing will be the first to cast mobile ballots on Oct. 9. Then poll workers will visit Falcon Manor Senior Housing on Oct. 13, Taft Farms Senior Living Community on Oct. 14 and Whitney Hill Homestead on Oct. 16.

Voting takes place between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at each location except Whitney Hill, where the hours will be noon to 4 p.m.

Mobile voting was established as a pilot program under a law passed by the state Legislature. The Secretary of State’s office will report on the results during the next legislative session. The law expires next July unless legislators renew it.

A brainstorming session on mobile voting about a year ago was attended by advocates for disabled people, town clerks, legislators and high school students. For a full day, they discussed obstacles to voter participation, Beckett said. Mobile voting was suggested as one way to reach out to voters who have trouble getting to the polls or dropping off an absentee ballot.

Markowitz settled on senior housing complexes as the most practical mobile voting venues. High schools were also considered, but Markowitz said those venues were ruled out — at least for this election cycle — because only a small number of students are 18 years old and thus eligible to vote.

She said more than 20 municipalities “and counting” around the state had agreed to conduct mobile polling as of last week. Other Chittenden County municipalities participating in the program include Shelburne and South Burlington.

Williston concentrated its efforts on self-contained senior housing complexes that each have a central “community room” where polling can be conducted, Beckett said.

The program, however, differs from town to town. Marshfield, for example, is using a bookmobile for a polling place, Markowitz said.

Not everyone is excited about extending voter participation with mobile voting. Rob Roper, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, said he is worried about the potential for fraud as voting moves away from traditional polling places.

Markowitz, a Democrat seeking re-election this year, said mobile voting uses the same controls already in place for absentee balloting. All ballots have to be accounted for to ensure no one can vote twice, she said. Ballots are kept in a secure place until Election Day. Town clerks will be accompanied by trained election workers from different political parties while at the mobile polling places.

Voting before Election Day, whether via absentee ballot or mobile voting, has become increasingly common in recent years. Beckett said about a fifth of the votes cast in Williston during the 2004 presidential election were absentee ballots.

Beckett said mobile voting is another step toward the goal of greater voter participation.

“The hope is to make it as an easy process as possible to vote,” she said.