Proposal would delay closing polling places
Two Portland councilors also want to form a citizen advisory committee to explore the issue.
By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer July 18, 2008
Portland officials will consider delaying a controversial plan to reduce the number of polling places from 16 to six after more than 1,500 voters signed a petition against the change.
City Councilors James Cohen and David Marshall said Thursday that they will offer a proposal to the council on Monday that calls for keeping 16 polling places through the November presidential election.
They also want to establish a citizen advisory committee to recommend how polling places could be reduced in the future, while at the same time preserving voter access and keeping an equal number of polling sites in each district.
Cohen and Marshall hope the council will agree to put their proposal on the November ballot. It would compete with a referendum sought by Save Our Neighborhood Polling Places, the group that circulated the petition to block the reduction.
"We need to have a more thorough discussion of the issue and allow the voters to have a say in how we can continue to provide equity and access in our polling places," Marshall said.
The council approved a municipal budget in May that called for reducing the number of polling places to six, in part to save $12,000 to $15,000 per election.
Opponents of the plan say it will reduce voters' access, increase lines at the polls and discourage some people from voting, especially low-income voters who don't have cars.
They're particularly concerned about the effect on voter turnout in November's presidential election.
On Monday, the council is expected to schedule an Aug. 18 public hearing on a proposed ordinance, sought by citizen petition, that would require the city to keep 16 polling places for all state and federal elections.
Under the ordinance, the council would be able to consolidate polling places only for local elections when voter turnout is expected to be unusually small. The council can either approve the ordinance as written or send it to referendum in November.
Cohen and Marshall said there are good reasons why some reduction in the number of polling places is necessary. The number of people voting by absentee ballot is growing, poll workers are increasingly difficult to hire and the city has no money to spare in a budget that eliminated 93 municipal jobs this year.
Opponents of the planned reduction said they're glad Cohen and Marshall are taking action, especially regarding the presidential election.
"They're hearing what the people of Portland are saying and they're responding," said Ben Chipman, an organizer of Save Our Neighborhood Polling Places.
Chipman said he believes the city should keep 16 polling places, but he would be open to having a minimum of two polling places in each mainland district if that was the recommendation of the advisory committee.
Controversy over the reduction plan surfaced late in this year's budget deliberations.
Under the plan, each of the city's five voting districts on the mainland would have one polling place. Now, districts 1 and 2 have two polling places each; districts 3, 4 and 5 have three each.
The plan kept a polling place on Peaks Island but eliminated polling places on Cliff and Great Diamond islands, to save about $2,500 per election. Councilors Marshall and Kevin Donoghue led an effort to keep polling places on Cliff and Great Diamond, but it failed.
Ultimately, the council unanimously approved a $185 million budget that included the poll-reduction plan.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: