The District's board of elections proposed cutting its 143 voting stations down to 16 as a cost-saving measure for the upcoming special election to fill the at-large council seat vacated by Kwame Brown when he was sworn in as chairman. The D.C. Council allocated $590,000 for the special election when it approved a stop-gap budget last month. But the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics told the council in a report that opening all of the city's precincts for the April 26 special election would cost $829,000. The District is in the midst of a budget crisis as officials prepare to fix a half-billion dollar gap in the next fiscal year.
"Funding a full election is the norm," elections board spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin said. "But there's only so much we can cut. If the council is serious about us needing to cut back further, then we need to look at other possibilities."
So the election board has recommended that the city set up 16 voting centers where residents can cast ballots over three days. Voters could vote at any of the centers -- two in each of the District's eight wards -- regardless of where they live. The proposal would cost $624,000, only $34,000 above what the city budgeted.
District watchdog Dorothy Brizill worries the change could hamper turnout in an election in which voters are already unlikely to show interest.
"Whenever you have a special election, the turnout is very low," Brizill said. "I don't think it will help if people can't go the precinct in their neighborhood."
But studies have found using voting centers that are set up in high traffic areas can boost turnout, said Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University.
"It's like the success of a Wal-Mart or a Men's Warehouse," Stein said. "You build those stores in visible locations along highways, and people stop. It can work the same way with voting."
Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh, whose committee oversees the board of elections, said she'll hold a hearing on the proposal Jan. 19.
"I want to make sure the public has an opportunity to weigh in on the board's proposals," Cheh said. "Given our budgetary circumstances, I appreciate the board's effort to administer the election in a cost-effective manner."