A likely scenario for Monroe County’s early in-person voting is to establish a single site—the former NAPA building on the southwest corner of 3rd and Walnut streets, across from the downtown transit center.
On Thursday, after discussing options for in-person early voting, including the use of a handful of satellite locations not in downtown Bloomington, Monroe County’s election board recessed its meeting until the following week.
Next Thursday (Jan. 27), it looks likely the board will finalize its early-voting plan for the 2022 primary election.
The timeline for settling on a plan is short. The first day of in-person early voting for the May 3 primary is April 5, which is just 68 days away from next Thursday.
Commenting about the looming early-election start, election supervisor Karen Wheeler told the board, “That is shocking to me. …We are really, really on a tight timeline here!”
Availability of the former NAPA building, which is vacant and under control of the county, is not a question. But remodeling of the NAPA building interior, adding security features like locks for a ballot room, and establishing a secure internet connection with adequate bandwidth, would need to be completed fast.
Based on basic questions about availability of the sites, indications are that satellite locations outside downtown Bloomington are unlikely to be part of the election board’s mix. Still, in the week between election board sessions, inquires will be made about the availability of five locations sprinkled around the compass points outside downtown Bloomington.
The former NAPA building looks likely as a sole location, based on election board deliberations and input from election division staff.
Monroe County clerk Nicole Browne sketched out her effort to respond to the urging of county commissioners to establish satellite locations outside downtown Bloomington to accommodate voters who live in rural areas. Plotted out on a map were: Ellettsville’s town hall (north); City Church (east); Eastside Church of the Nazarene (southeast); Southside Christian Church (south); and Monroe County fairgrounds (west).
The idea was to winnow those five down to four, by picking just one from the southeast and east locations.
Browne is a Democrat, and as county clerk, serves on the three-member election board. The other two members are pointed by the party chairs: Shruti Rana (Democratic Party appointee); and Donovan Garletts (Republican Party appointee).
About that many satellite locations, election supervisor Karen Wheeler told the board, “The four satellites really do scare me, in the fact of trying to get staffing.” Recruiting that many additional election workers would be a challenge, Wheeler said.
Election staffing has to be partisan-balanced. Anytime a ballot gets touched, a Republican and Democrat have to be a part of the process. Based on the results of the most recent presidential election, in Monroe County there’s a roughly 65–35 split in favor of the Democratic Party.
Wheeler said, “We’re like maxed out right now, especially with Republicans, at getting that staff.” Staffing additional satellite locations would be a challenge, Wheeler said. “Even if it’s minimal, it’s still going to be more than we’ve had to do before.”
Deputy clerk Tressia Martin briefed the board on the additional cost to pay election workers to staff satellite offices: $86,000.
For Wheeler, it’s less about the money and more about the ability to recruit election workers at all. “Sometimes I can’t always get more workers. And that is a reality.”
Martin also weighed in on the issue of staffing for satellite locations: “My major concern with satellite locations is finding workers.” She added: “We have trouble now finding people to work. And with the pandemic still being upon us, it’d be more difficult.”
In support of the idea that finding workers is difficult right now, election board member Donovan Garletts drew on his experience as president of Indiana Limestone Fabricators: “I pay people a pretty good starting wage, and I can’t find people. So I get it. I totally get it.”
Wheeler said the interior of the former NAPA building offers more space for setting up early voting than Election Central, in the old Johnson Hardware building at Monroe and 7th streets. She thinks the long lines that were seen during early voting in the 2020 elections could be avoided.
About the former NAPA building, Wheeler said, “I can see staffing it. I can see that the lines would be shorter—because I can set up more e-pollbooks. I can have more space for people to actually vote.”
Wheeler acknowledged some downsides to the former NAPA building: “It’s always going to be a challenge: You have a new place, you have a new location, you’re going to have to do advertising.”
One open question that Garletts has about the former NAPA building is the availability of parking in the lot across the street from the convention center. If voters could park there, it would help tilt the balance in favor of the former NAPA building.
Another significant challenge will be configuring the physical space at the former NAPA building.
At last Thursday’s meeting, the county’s facility director Greg Crohn could not promise all the renovations would be complete by the start of early voting. Crohn said, “For some of the things—like the locks, security cameras, things like that, I don’t see that being an issue.”
Crohn continued, “Any of the major construction work, like possible bathroom remodel, the addition of a ballot room, if we have to do any parking lot work—the sooner I get on that, the better.” Crohn added, “But I can’t guarantee that I could make that by April 1.”
By way of explanation, Crohn said that due to general staffing shortage due to the coronavirus pandemic, he is having a problem right now getting contractors even to visit a site, to give him quotes for some of the county’s other projects.
An internet connection for the former NAPA building was addressed at Thursday’s meeting by the county’s chief technology officer, Eric Evans. He told the board the plan is to use an Xfinity connection, if that’s available, and put a special router on each end of it, to encrypt everything. If an Xfinity connection is not available, then a fiber connection would be needed, which means running conduit under the street, likely from the convention center, Evans said.
Running fiber under the street is not something Evans sees as likely by May. Wheeler chimed in to remind the board that early voting for the May 3 primary election starts on April 5, so the window of time to prepare does not extend to May 3.
As the momentum in the board’s deliberations built against satellite early voting locations, Browne reminded her board colleagues that it was the county commissioners who had urged the board to explore satellite early voting locations. “If it’s on the table to scrap the satellites, and use NAPA, I just want for the record to be clear that I attempted to make more facilities available to the more rural parts of the community.”
Browne said she felt the commissioners would likely ask if the alternative had been explored: “I do think we are probably going to be asked to speak to that, if we don’t have something that’s more rural.”
The idea of consolidating all election division activities under one roof—at Election Central in the old Johnson Hardware building at Monroe and 7th streets—is still an eventual goal for the election board. But that topic, which fueled the wrangling between the election board and the county commissioners for much of last year, is no longer an immediate focus.
Garletts, who joined the board late last year to replace the resigning Hal Turner, told Browne, “Crystal clear from me, you have my undying support, that I will be a very loud voice to get everything under one roof. And that is for not only the benefit of you and your staff, but…for the purpose that we serve the voters of our county.”
Election board chair Shruti Rana wrapped up the topic at Thursday’s meeting by saying, “I think that it’s always been clear from from the beginning that everyone on the board is really committed to expanding access and making it as easy to vote in Monroe County as possible—whether we’re talking about the primary, the general, midterms or the presidential election.”
Rana continued, “We’re all committed to expanding access to voting and making it as easy as possible for our citizens to vote here.” She added that she thinks there’s some movement towards a more centralized solution for the 2024 elections.
But for 2022, Rana said, it’s a matter of coming up with the best solution that’s possible in the meantime, while the board works towards a more permanent solution.