The Merits – and the Rise – of Vote Centers

by Megan Bellamy

August 29, 2023

Since the 2020 election, state legislatures around the country have transformed the voting landscape, proposing thousands of bills and making hundreds of changes to the patchwork of election laws that govern our democracy. As legislators continue to zero in on the many nuanced policies that determine how and where voters cast their ballots, vote centers are no exception.

A vote center is a polling location that typically covers several voting precincts. Vote centers can be either an alternative or a complement to precinct-based polling places on Election Day or, in some states, during the early voting period. Vote centers permit voters in a certain jurisdiction to cast their ballot at any location within that jurisdiction, rather than being limited to a polling place in their specific precinct.

In this month’s Hot Policy Take, we take a look at how states are shifting the role that vote centers play – or don’t play – in our local elections. While much less prevalent than changes to options like drop boxes or mail voting, since the 2020 election, nearly 100 bills concerning vote centers have been introduced in states around the country. 

Vote centers are a strong asset when it comes to providing local voting options. The availability of vote centers is an added convenience for voters, and their use is likely to result in increased voter turnout.

The Merits

Vote centers can have significant benefits for both a community’s voting population and local election administrators. 

For voters, vote centers offer convenience and expanded options – a voter can cast their ballot at a location that is near their workplace or is otherwise more convenient. Because many voters are away from their homes and often their assigned precinct polling place during traditional voting hours, being able to vote at any polling place in their jurisdiction increases the ease of casting one’s ballot and can increase turnout overall.

Currently, about one-third of states allow or require jurisdictions to offer vote centers on Election Day.

Meanwhile, for election administrators, vote centers have the ability to serve the same number of voters with greater efficiency at a lower cost.

The Criticisms

Vote centers are not without their limitations. Opponents of vote centers typically offer a handful of arguments as to why they should not be established.

One fear is that vote centers will present a technological challenge. A vote center must be able to produce the correct ballot for any voter residing within its specified jurisdiction. Many jurisdictions also specify that an electronic poll book must be used at a voting center that can quickly verify the voter’s registration and ensure the voter has not already voted elsewhere. New Mexico’s vote center statute is fairly typical: it requires “a broadband internet connection and real-time synchronization to access the voter registration electronic management system.” It’s worth noting that such an internet connection is limited solely to poll books.

In reality, every jurisdiction should already be equipped to handle these technological requirements, particularly when implementing other pro-voter policies, such as same-day voter registration, in which a polling place’s equipment is required to have data synchronization.

Some also argue that vote centers can lead to increased travel times. Unless the enabling statute specifically provides otherwise, adopting a vote center model will typically reduce the number of polling locations within a jurisdiction. While this helps to reduce costs, it can also conceivably result in voters needing to travel farther in order to cast their ballot in person. 

However, states that use vote centers have responded to this concern with a wide variety of solutions that help prevent additional burdens on voters:

  • Hawaii Revised Statutes §11-109 grants authority to open additional voting centers as needed “to service the voters of particular areas.” 
  • Other states, such as Arkansas, use voting centers as a complement to traditional precinct-based polling places, rather than as a replacement.
  • Colorado’s statute is extremely detailed about the selection of locations for vote centers, specifying the number of vote centers required per active voter, requiring vote centers on college campuses, and providing minute detail about accessibility factors such as proximity to public transportation and geographic features that may affect access. 

These kinds of specific and detailed provisions are essential to ensure voters aren’t burdened by longer travel times to the ballot box due to the use of vote centers.

Lastly, the creation of vote centers can necessitate community voter education. A voter who has used to the same polling place year after year may be thrown off or deterred from making their voice heard if their usual voting location is closed. States have found ways to address this issue. In Texas, for example, Election Code 43.007(g) requires notice of the nearest vote center to be posted at any precinct polling place not being used as a vote center if it was used as a polling place in the most recent election before a county joined the vote center program.

The Current Landscape

Since the 2020 election, nearly 100 bills concerning vote centers have been introduced in states around the country – with 35 introduced in 2023 – and 10 bills have been enacted. So far, new legislation concerning vote centers has largely expanded their use. For example:

  • New Mexico S.B. 180 was enacted this year and mandates, rather than permits, the use of vote centers (which New Mexico calls “voter convenience centers”) in statewide elections. It also requires all polling locations established for elections in 2021 to operate as voter convenience centers for all statewide elections in the 2023 calendar year.
  • Illinois S.B. 2123, also enacted this year, increases the number of vote centers required in a jurisdiction with a population of 500,000 or more from one to two.
  • Washington D.C. B. 507, enacted in April of this year after the Congressional review process, expressly permits a voter to use any vote center location regardless of their address. Previous law had no express provision for universal access to vote centers, although board of elections practice permitted it.
  • New York S.B. 5537 would have permitted local boards of elections to establish vote centers if their plan received approval from the State Board of Elections, but the bill died in committee after clearing the first chamber.

Alternatively, some of the states that have broadly adopted measures to restrict voter access in the last few years are also considering legislation to restrict vote centers. Texas S.B. 990 (2023) for example, would have abolished vote centers in the state. The bill passed the Senate before failing to advance in the House. The sponsor of the bill asserted that the bill was necessary because of “concern that countywide voting creates vulnerabilities in election security and frustrates chain-of-custody measures.” 

A 2023 Oklahoma bill that passed the first chamber would have prohibited vote centers. Several bills introduced in Arizona in 2023 would also have eliminated the use of vote centers, among other restrictive measures.

Our Take

While there are some valid concerns about vote centers, our team at the Voting Rights Lab believes that they can largely be addressed through well-crafted legislation that also accounts for the need to protect precinct-based polling locations. The benefits in convenience and turnout are worth it: any policy that encourages more voters to make their voices heard at the ballot box ultimately makes our democracy stronger. 

We will continue to track new trends and legislation impacting vote centers in all 50 states through our State Voting Rights Tracker – as always, you can follow the progress of 2023 legislation here.