About 20,000 Allen County residents cast early ballots at four satellite voting sites in 2016, but they won't have that opportunity in next year's election unless members of the county Election Board can agree on the number and location of sites.
And right now, they don't.
"I have a severe concern about fairness. If it's not fairer, I'm not sure we should do this," Democratic member Tim Pape said Thursday after Director of Elections Beth Dlug suggested replacing previous early satellite voting locations at the Georgetown, Aboite, Dupont and Hessen Cassel branch libraries because limited space, parking and hours at those facilities often resulted in long lines. "There were serious challenges we and they wanted us to address," said Dlug, whose proposed 2018 sites included The Summit, 1025 W. Rudisill Blvd.; Ivy Tech, 3800 N. Anthony Blvd., Manchester College, 10627 Diebold Road; and Indiana Wesleyan University, 8211 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Pape, however, pointed out that would leave both the northwest and southeast parts of Fort Wayne without such a location, possibly limiting access for people without cars. He suggested Dlug transfer the satellite from Manchester or Ivy Tech to a northwest location and that an additional site be added by returning to the Hessen Cassel branch on the southeast side.
Dlug, however, said the proposed sites are on bus routes and they she and her staff had scoured the northwest side for a suitable location without success — a process complicated by some voters' unwillingness to enter churches. The sites she proposed would have room for more voting machines that could accommodate more people more quickly, Dlug added.
And Republican member Tom Hardin cautioned that adding a fifth satellite would force the board to reduce the days and hours they operate because the program's budget has been set at $40,000. Last year, early satellite voting was offered for five days. "I thought more days and hours (of voting) was a good thing," Hardin said. "I'm not sure I would vote for something that would limit options. The program is popular."
Pape, however, said geographical diversity may be a bigger factor in attracting more voters — something he suggested is necessary to justify the program's expense. "We had 150,000 votes last November, and just 20,000 were from satellites. About 152,400 votes were cast in the previous presidential election in 2008 when early satellite voting was not offered.
"We're spending money but not getting more votes," Pape said. "My objective is not to do what's popular."
Early satellite voting will require the unanimous consent of the three-member board, which also includes County Clerk Lisa Borgmann. Although a final decision won't come until next year, Dlug said it's important a consensus be reached quickly because locations selected as satellite voting sites often need to plan their schedules far in advance.
Regardless of the board's decision, early voting will continue next year downtown at the Rousseau Centre, which also saw long lines last year.
There could be even more waiting without satellite voting, Dlug suggested.
"We don't want to go back to long lines on Election Day," Borgmann agreed.