Should the city of Lakeland trim the number of polling places for municipal elections from 25 to 12? Mayor Bill Mutz says the cost-cutting idea makes sense in an age when a growing majority of voters cast ballots by mail. But Commissioner Justin Troller says plentiful polling places prompt participation.
City commissioners are scheduled to vote on the issue March 18 at their 3 p.m. meeting. Members of the public will have a chance to comment before the vote at City Hall.
The commission discussed it briefly at an agenda study workshop this morning when City Clerk Kelly Koos suggested the city use 12 precincts for this fall’s election, as it did in January’s special election.
The move would reduce both cost and complexity, Koos said. It means hiring fewer poll workers and spending less on venue rentals.
But the idea didn’t sit well with Troller or Commissioner Bill Read. “The more polling places we have, the better prepared we are to defend the democracy we have,” Troller said.
Mutz said he wants “to make voting as easy and as broad as possible,” but noted that he has visited several polling places and seen election workers contending with lots of slack time. “There’s a shift in how we’re voting.”
A chart prepared by Koos’ office reflects a dramatic increase in voting by mail over the past decade. Vote by mail represented the following percentage of voting in these city elections:
- 2010 special election – 54.4 percent
- 2015 general election – 67.1 percent
- 2019 special election – 70.6 percent
At the same time, the modest turnout numbers went from 8.1 percent in 2010 to 11.9 percent in 2015 to 12 percent in 2019.
Koos said today that she had hoped the reduction to 12 voter locations in last January’s election would save the city $9,000. Final costs haven’t been tallied yet, she said, but she noted that costs for sending absentee ballots were higher than anticipated because the tight timeframe required use of an outside vendor. The Polk Supervisor of Elections Office will be able to resume sending absentee ballots in the next election, she said.
As a participant in January’s three-way City Commission election, new Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said she recognizes that communication will be important. Some voters were confused by being assigned a different voting location than usual, she said, and that confusion was exacerbated by postcards that gave some voters incorrect information.
Indeed, if the plan to reduce polling places is approved, a large number of Lakeland voters — perhaps half — will still switch polling places from election to election.
The reason: The reduced-polling-place plan applies only to city elections. The larger number of polling places will still be used for county/state/federal elections.
If the city makes the change, “the assumption is that you would do that permanently, but I think it’s better to revisit it after every election,” City Attorney Tim McCausland told commissioners. “The last thing you want to do is inconvenience people and have an impact on turnout.”