Mahoning County, which has the lowest average number of voters per precinct among the state’s 13 most-populous counties, could have significantly fewer precincts by the November general election.
Discussion among county board of elections officials and members Monday was preliminary. Efforts to reduce precincts in recent years have fallen short.
The county has 273 voting precincts for its 170,079 registered voters, or 623 voters per precinct. That is a lot fewer than the 12 other most-populous counties, which range from 721 to 1,235 per precinct, and below the state average of 827 per precinct.
The next closest is Trumbull County with 721 registered voters per precinct. That county’s board of elections adopted a plan last month to reduce that to 997 per precinct in 2015, assuming the county’s number of registered voters remains the same. That plan consolidates its 210 precincts into 152.
“The nature of elections has changed with more early voters leading to the number of voters at precincts being reduced,” said Mark Munroe, Mahoning elections board chairman, and head of the county Republican Party.
Munroe suggests cutting 50 to 90 precincts. That would increase the number of voters per precinct to anywhere between 763 and 929.
Director Joyce Kale-Pesta, a Democrat, said she’d like to see about 800 to 850 voters per precinct. That would mean reducing precincts from 273 to between 200 and 213.
“Most of the issues” with low amounts of registered voters at precincts are in Youngstown, Struthers and Campbell, she said.
Board Vice Chairman David Betras, also the county’s Democratic Party chairman, said he supports “consolidation” but has to “study” the precincts more before supporting a specific reduction plan.
“The No. 1 goal is ease of voting,” he said. “No. 2 is fiscal concerns.”
Each precinct reduced saves the county about $1,000 to $1,200 per election, Munroe said.
One problem with 273 precincts, he said, is finding “poll workers, particularly on the Republican side,” to staff elections.
The board reduced the number of precincts from 412 to 309 in 2001.
Since then, there’s been a lot of talk, but little action. The number was cut by 25 to 287 in 2006 and then by 14 to 273 last year. The discussion during both of those consolidations was to get the number of precincts down to about 200.
Meanwhile, the board is considering the purchase of two optical-scanning machines that would count paper ballots at its office with greater speed than the three older machines currently used for that purpose.
Each new machine would cost about $100,000 with the $200,000 overall expense paid over a period of four years, Kale-Pesta said. The resale on the older machines would reduce that amount by about $30,000, she said.
The current machines have problems with paper jams, Kale-Pesta said, and they stop counting when there is a ballot with a write-in candidate’s name or if a voter casts an “overvote” — such as voting for two candidates for one position. Those ballots have to be removed by hand for further ballots to be counted.
The new system would move those write-in and overvote ballots to a location on the machines while still counting the other paper votes without stopping, which will speed up vote counting on election nights, Kale-Pesta said.
ES&S, the Omaha, Neb., company that has provided the county’s voting equipment for several years — paper ballots in the 1990s, the county’s electronic-voting machines when that move was made in 2001, and then back to paper a couple of years ago — is the vendor for these new machines.
Monday was the first meeting for Republican Tracey Winbush of Youngstown as an elections board member.
She is the first black to serve on the board, and the first woman in 11 years.
“Tracey Winbush is a pioneer in the community,” Betras said. “She’s definitely blazed some trails.”