Consolidating St. Clair County voting precincts could save $300K

News-DemocratApril 5, 2014 

A plan to consolidate voting precincts in St. Clair County could save $300,000 during a two-year election cycle.

St. Clair County Board members Frank Heiligenstein, a Democrat of Freeburg, and David Tiedemann, a Republican of Shiloh, are pushing to combine the county's voting precincts with the fewest voters. State law recommends voting precincts should have between 500 and 800 voters per precinct. The county has 40 voting precincts with fewer than 500 voters.

"If we follow logic and common sense, we could eliminate 65 precincts," Heiligenstein said, noting he believes each precinct should have about 1,200 voters.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said county officials are working to consolidate precincts that fall significantly below the required 500 voter level and the county should adhere to all applicable law when consolidating precincts.

Heiligenstein believes the county could reduce the county's 205 voting precincts to 140 precincts. Doing so would save thousands of dollars per precinct -- most of the cost stems from paying up to five election judges $200 each per election, according to Heiligenstein.

Heiligenstein said the next step in the process is dependent upon Kern directing county staff to determine the legal description of the precincts' boundaries -- which the County Board needs to approve. Unless the process is started soon, Heiligenstein said the revised precincts will not be ready until after the March 2016 elections.

Kern said county staff will be able to complete the process in time, just as they did in 2011 when County Board districts were redrawn.

"As proven during the County Board redistricting process, our GIS Department is well equipped to provide updated legal descriptions, should they be necessary, in a timely fashion and we should have no problem completing the precincts in time for the 2016 elections," Kern said.

Tiedemann said the issue should be regularly addressed to ensure the cost of precincts are in line with needs of voters.

St. Clair County Clerk Tom Holbrook said the issue has a variety of pros and cons, and he defers to the members of the County Board who are responsible for determining whether to consolidate.

The issue

The number of voters within precincts varies widely throughout the county. For example, a precinct in Canteen Township has 146 voters while a precinct in Mascoutah Township has 1,555 voters.

Heiligenstein said the county could combine the current 14 precincts in Canteen Township into 4 precincts. He estimates consolidating those precincts alone would save $45,000 during a two-year election cycle. Three elections occur in each election cycle.

Canteen Township's 14 precincts average 362 voters, according to county records. During the most recent Presidential election in 2012, only 79 voters cast a ballot in one of the township's precincts. In comparison, more than 14 times that number of voters (1,151 residents) cast a ballot in that election from a precinct in the Caseyville Township.

Tiedemann represents part of Shiloh Valley Township where precincts have as many as 1,481 voters in a precinct. Tiedemann said voters in those precincts wait only a few minutes during the busiest times to cast a ballot on election days. The three precincts in the Freeburg Township, which Heiligenstein represents, average 1,169 voters per precinct.

State laws dictating a maximum of 800 voters per precinct are antiquated, according to Heiligenstein, and should be changed to allow 1,200 voters per precinct.

The problem is those vote totals do not reflect the popularity of early voting and ballots cast by absentee, Heiligenstein said. State legislators approved early voting in 2005. Those ballots are handled by election judges at the County Building, not judges at polling places hosted in each precinct on Election Day.

"Those laws are based on a time when voters went to the polls by horse and buggy," Heiligenstein said, noting he has asked state legislators to increase the maximum.

In St. Clair County, 12 percent of voters cast their ballot early or through absentee ballots in the most recent election in March and 19 percent did so in November 2012. In the November 2012 election, St. Clair County provided additional satellite locations for those wishing to vote early.

Results from the March primary election are unofficial until certified by the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Madison County, East St. Louis consolidated

The East St. Louis Election Commission, which is responsible for elections in East St. Louis, consolidated its 44 precincts into 25 precincts in 2009. Kandrise Mosby, executive director of the commission, said the consolidation has not extended the wait time for voters because many residents vote early or with absentee ballots.

In the most recent election in March, 43 percent of all ballots cast were through absentee or early voting. During the last presidential election in November 2012, 36 percent of voters cast a ballot through absentee or early voting in East St. Louis.

Madison County consolidated its voting precincts following the results of the 2010 U.S. Census, according to Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza. Madison County currently has 224 voting precincts compared to 233 precincts in 2009.

Ming-Mendoza said the number of voters in the current precincts fall within state guidelines and no issues have prompted talks of consolidation.

Early voting and absentee ballots accounted for 15 percent of the total votes cast in March and 25 percent of all votes cast in the November 2012 election.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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