Schenectady County residents could find it easier to vote in 2014 because of county Board of Elections plans for a major overhaul of election districts.
Next week the board will start public meetings to redraw and reduce the county’s 120 election districts. This major overhaul is being implemented to create polling sites that are convenient for voters and not overly burdened on Election Day.
Towns and cities are broken up into election districts, which serve as the basis for local, state and national legislative boundaries. The districts also are used to organize voting, with a person’s polling site based on what election district they live in. In some cases voters need to travel outside of their election district to vote because some polling sites serve multiple districts.
Election District Public Meetings
All meetings are at 7 p.m.
March 4, Duanesburg Community Center
March 11, Rotterdam Public Library
March 18, Glenville Public Library
April 1, Niskayuna Town Hall
April 15, Princetown Town Hall
April 29, Schenectady Public Library
Source: Schenectady County Board of Elections
“Election districts are the building blocks that political geography is built on,” said Schenectady County Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner Brian Quail.
Schenectady County’s election districts have evolved in a piecemeal fashion. “We have election districts that are very odd in shape and no longer correspond to where the polling site is. We have people who live in an election district and are voting in a poll site that is fairly far removed from the district,” said Quail.
One example of the inconvenience is the 24th election district in Glenville, which includes the Glen Oaks neighborhood. The district is very near to a polling site, the Beukendaal Fire Department, but voters are sent to vote at the East Glenville Community Church. Redrawn lines might be able to minimize the amount of inconvenient voting.
“I can’t tell you how many times I get a phone call from people saying, ‘I live right across from the poll site, but you’re making me drive halfway across town to vote,’ ” Quail said.
Restructuring election districts also will allow for a more even distribution of population. As of last week, the county’s smallest district had 369 voters and the largest had 1,219 voters.
Election districts are required to have at least four poll workers. Smaller districts could have more poll workers per voter if extra workers are not provided to a large district. “There is a different service or potential wait,” Schenectady County Board of Elections Republican Commissioner Art Brassard said.
By reducing the population disparity between election districts, the county can use fewer resources and offer equal service to voters. Some variations will continue, though, because rural areas are sparsely populated and would be too large geographically if they had equal population.
Election commissioners would also like to reduce the number of election districts from 120 to 95. This would make an average district of about 973 voters, an increase of about 200 per district. They believe about 1,000 voters per district makes sense with the latest voting systems.
This proposal wouldn’t impact Duanesburg or Princetown, but the remaining municipalities would all lose about 20 percent of their election districts.
The reduction of districts could save the county between $12,000 and $24,000 a year, based on initial estimates of reduced need for poll workers and training. Both commissioners stressed that these savings aren’t the impetus for their plan, but that it is an added benefit.
How the 95 districts should be drawn won’t be addressed until after six planned public meetings are held. These meetings will start in March and run through April.
Brassard said the board would like to consider existing neighborhoods when drawing districts.
The county plans to make initial recommendations this summer, which would be reviewed during two public hearings in August. Revisions could be made after that, with the plan to adopt final election districts and polling sites by January 2014.
Before recent state legislation, the opportunity hadn’t existed in the past for the county to do an overhaul like this. The power previously belonged to towns and cities. The county could only redraw boundaries in response to redistricting, which often creates legislative boundaries that dissect election districts.
“We are compelled to redraw lines,” Quail said, “to undo any splitting [of election districts].” Redistricting has previously led to the creation of tiny election districts that were oddly shaped and far from polling sites because it was easier to create a new district than fold it into an existing district. Part of the problem stemmed from the available technology. Computers have revolutionized how the work is done, since exact addresses are needed for every voter.
“Back in the old days, which was basically 10 years ago … it was done by [hand, using] maps that had address ranges on it, or people drove around to find out the address ranges,” Quail said.
The vast majority of the county’s 57 poll sites are not being considered for any major changes in terms of number and locations. Brassard said the board currently feels there are the right number of sites and in pretty good locations. In the last decade the number of polling sites has been cut by about 25 percent.
The county will be reviewing the use of schools as polling sites because of security changes in recent years. Quail said they’re reaching out to school districts to determine whether it still makes logistical sense to have voting at certain schools, considering questions of limited entries and restricted space.
“Where that is not possible,” he said, “our intention will be to leave schools.”
“Super” polling sites, which serve multiple election districts, are part of the county’s plan moving forward. By resizing election districts they believe these sites will no longer have lines of voters from one district, while no line exists for voters from another district at the site.
Ultimately, Quail said, “We want to get to the point where we have election district boundaries that make sense for voters and election [administrators].”