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Gazette Premium Content Commissioners defend polling places

DEBBIE KELLEY Updated: October 12, 2010 at 12:00 am

El Paso County officials on Tuesday defended their designation of polling places for the August primary and November general election, following Monday’s criticism from a coalition of First Amendment rights advocates who object to the number of local churches being used.

The groups, which include Colorado Springs’ Citizens Project, said a study they conducted showed that 72 percent of El Paso County voting places are in churches, and they are concerned that precinct location may influence voters’ decision-making.

County Commissioner Amy Lathen said the study is “agenda driven” and called it “a pathetic waste of time.”

“I think it’s condescending to voters to think they could be so swayed,” Lathen said. “It’s time to put on our big boy and girl pants and move on.”

Kristy Milligan, executive director of Citizens Project, said her organization, which also promotes religious freedom, equality and diversity, wants to see a broader representation of faith communities and secular locations for polling places.

“There are voters who feel uncomfortable going into the predominately evangelical Christian polling locations that have been selected this year. Some might be Muslim, atheist, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender,” she said. “The entire function of the elections office is to enable people to exercise their Constitutional right to vote; I can’t imagine anything being a better use of time than ensuring inclusive, accessible polling places.”

(Look up your polling place at The Gazette's online voter guide.)

County Clerk & Recorder Bob Balink told commissioners at Tuesday’s regular meeting that his office does not seek out churches as precincts, but that they offer convenient polling places.

“Schools are becoming more difficult places with security issues. They don’t want a bunch of strangers on school property, even on election day,” Balink said.

During elections in 2006 and 2008, the doors at several local schools being used for voting were locked due to security concerns, and election judges had to buzz in voters.

Commissioner Wayne Williams said convenience is a top factor for polling places, which is why they are scattered in various buildings throughout the community.

“One of the reasons a number of churches have allowed us to use their facilities is that they’re not heavily used on Tuesdays, which is not typical of schools,” he said.

Milligan said her group is calling for more transparency in the selection of polling places.

“Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing at the end of the day: We want voters to exercise their Constitutional right to vote. We just have a different idea about what is an accessible, inclusive polling place.”

Balink said the growing trend of alternative voting methods, including mail-in ballots and early voting at Clerk and Recorder offices, combined with a need to save money, led to 87 polling locations being eliminated for the August and November elections.

Decreasing the number of polling sites from 189 to 102 is saving $340,000, said Balink, whose office runs local elections.

During the August primary, 15,000 of the 77,000 residents who voted went to a polling site on election day, Balink said.

Of the 189 original locations, 73, or just under 40 percent, were churches, he said, acknowledging that the percentage has increased with the elimination of sites.

“It’s not like they put the voting machines by the altar. It isn’t intended to influence the way you vote. The percentage of churches is higher now, but so is the percentage of community centers as polling places,” Balink said. “Some might be offended about any place we choose.  But all voters have options.”

Mail-in ballots were sent out Tuesday to voters who requested them. Ballots also can be picked up at Clerk and Recorder offices. They must be returned by 7 p.m. Nov. 2.

Early voting starts Monday and runs for two weeks, including Saturdays, at three Clerk and Recorder locations, the downtown office at Centennial Hall, the Powers and Airport location and the former motor vehicle office at Chapel Hills Mall.

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