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Commissioners seek to save money in elections

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Elections commissioners believe that with new voting technology, fewer election inspectors are needed and election districts could be consolidated, which will save money for cash-strapped counties.

Only one thing stands in the way: politics. The jobs they seek to eliminate are plum for political patronage machines downstate, they noted. Plus, the parties divvy up spots on county committees by the number of election districts in the county, complicating any changes to those numbers.

But evolving technology justifies the move, officials say.

“We’re required by law to hire people we don’t need,” said Jerry O. Eaton, Jefferson County Republican election commissioner.

The changes would require a new state law. The state Election Commissioners’ Association put together a legislative agenda in 2011, but it appears the ideas did not gain much traction in Albany. Lawmakers did not introduce bills on the consolidation matters, according to association members. The chairmen of the Senate and Assembly committees on elections did not respond to requests for comment.

By state law, county boards of elections are required to have four election inspectors in each election district. Some poll sites are home to several election districts. And one new optical scanning machine can do the work of three separate lever machines in a place like Antwerp, where voters from three election districts vote in one place. So 16 election commissioners aren’t exactly necessary there, Mr. Eaton and his Democratic counterpart, Sean M. Hennessey, argue.

“We know we need 12, but we’re forced to have 16,” Mr. Hennessey said.

Mr. Eaton and Mr. Hennessey could not offer a firm figure on how much the county could save. Each inspector makes about $200 a day, plus a stipend for training, they said.

“When you add those pennies up, they become dollars,” Mr. Hennessey said.

Election inspectors are hard to come by in the north country, Mr. Eaton said. But downstate, they’re handed out as political favors, so limiting the number of them runs into practical political realities.

Also on the commissioners’ docket is consolidating election districts. Under state law, 1,150 people can live in an election district.

Three election districts in the town of Ellisburg, for example, cannot be consolidated because doing so would surpass that maximum.

Mr. Eaton and Mr. Hennessey want to move that number to 2,500, which would cut down on the number of election districts. That would save time when tallying votes, but it would not necessarily mean the closing of any poll sites. The election commissioners can already close sites and have several election districts vote in one place.

But the major political parties may balk at the proposal, because they base their committee membership on the number of election districts. Mr. Hennessey and Mr. Eaton said the parties could change their internal rules to reflect change in election district numbers, preventing them from having to cut down on the number of committee members.

“Your power structure gets affected,” Mr. Hennessey said. But “they’d just have to change” some of their rules.

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