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Des Moines County draws new precincts

Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA) - Thursday, August 11, 2011
Author: By NICHOLAS BERGIN ; nbergin@thehawkeye.com
Census numbers spur first change in 20 years. 

For the first time in 20 years, Burlington's voter precincts are being reconfigured and reduced from 12 to nine. 

The city has the option to redraw its precincts after every census, which was not done in 2000. The 2010 U.S. Census indicates Burlington's population dropped 4.4 percent in 10 years to 25,663 residents. 

City Planning and Development Director Eric Tysland estimates the city could save up to $10,000 per election under the planned reduction of precincts and polling sites. The county also will save money, but officials have not determined how much. 

"It will eventually help (the county save money) because you won't need as many workers and as many machines set up," Des Moines County Elections Deputy Terri Johnson said. "And our maintenance crews will have fewer (machines and ballots) to deliver. It will help reduce the costs that way." 

New precinct lines have been drawn by the Des Moines County GIS Department using census data, as well as input from the Burlington Planning and Development Department and the county Auditor's office. Officials created five different scenarios before settling on the final draft, GIS Director Matt Warner said. 

"We tried to preserve, as much as we could, the existing precincts, so we didn't disrupt much," Warner said. "Our goal is to not displace as many people as possible." 

The Burlington City Council plans to vote Monday to adopt the new precincts. City staff have recommended approval without second and third readings so the maps can be sent to the state by the Sept. 1 submission deadline. 

Councilman Matt Murray voiced concerns Monday when the new precincts were presented to the city council. He said the changes could confuse people and suppress voter turnout. 

The new precinct boundaries will go into effect next year if approved by state officials, which is expected to take place Jan. 15, Johnson said. 

As part of the redistricting, Tama Township is being incorporated into Burlington's Precinct 1 and Concordia Township is being combined with Precinct 8 for state, federal and likely school district elections. Rural residents will not vote in municipal elections. 

The new map simplifies the precincts with borders following major streets. 

Officials plan to continue using the same polling locations, although two are being eliminated: Christ Episcopal Church, 623 N. Fifth St. and Corse Elementary School 700 S. Starr St. 

"There was a couple of the older polling locations they wanted to get rid of mainly because of ease of use and access," Warner said. 

Even with most polling stations remaining, some residents will cast ballots at new locations due to the redrawn precincts.

Many of the polling places are not centrally located within precincts, but have the advantage of good parking, plenty of space for voting and handicapped accessibility, a combination not always easy to find, Johnson said. 

The Des Moines County Auditor's office plans to send out new voter registration cards to all voters in the county in January. Even rural residents could notice some changes due to new state legislative maps, Johnson said. 

The registration cards will note precinct and voting locations for general, municipal, school district and Southeast Iowa Community College elections. 

"That is why everyone needs to pay attention to their voter registration cards when they get them," Johnson said. 

The county's GIS software, ArcView, simplified the task of drawing the new precincts. Once the census data was input, officials used a graphical map to draw the new boundaries. The software automatically kept track of the number of residents. 

"I don't know how they would have done this 15 years ago, trying to add up census tracks then moving a line. Our (software) does it on the fly basically," Warner said. 

State law requires precincts have populations of no more than 3,500. Burlington's precinct populations range from 2,546 in Precinct 6 to 3,350 in Precinct 8. 

"We tried to keep them all pretty close to the same size just for obvious reasons," Warner said. 

County election officials are contemplating reducing the number of polling stations even further for municipal and school elections designating a single voting location for up to three precincts, Johnson said. 

"That will reduce the number of workers needed and setup cost," Johnson said. "It's just something we're looking at. You have to have at least three workers at every polling place, and in some locations when you only have 50 voters for the day, that is kind of a waste of resources."