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Voters from five precincts fill the rows of small booths as they cast their votes for the mid-term election in November at the Bismarck Event Center. 

How North Dakotans vote has changed over recent years as more residents are using absentee ballots, voting by mail and voting early at auditors’ offices.

In fact, about 48 percent of the ballots cast in the 2018 midterm election were submitted early. In all, early voting accounted for 157,200 of the 330,598 votes cast. That’s a record since early voting centers were first used in June 2008.

With more people taking the opportunity to vote early there’s a need for fewer polling places on Election Day.

In 2017 the Burleigh County Commission voted 3-2 to eliminate some of its polling sites and switch to universal vote centers. The idea is to allow people to vote where it’s most convenient. Under the Burleigh plan, the number of county polling sites would have gone from 27 to 16, with 12 universal vote centers and four traditional polling sites in rural communities. Burleigh County Auditor Kevin Glatt said the goal was to increase voter turnout and make elections more accessible.

"We strive to make elections better for our citizens, not for political purposes," he told Tribune reporter Amy Dalrymple.

Bismarck legislators opposed the change, complaining they weren’t consulted. The Burleigh decision was reversed after it was decided the city of Bismarck had not granted the county authority to change precinct boundaries.

Now Bismarck legislators have taken the issue to the Legislature. Several Bismarck legislators have introduced House Bill 1270, which would require county commissioners to get the consent of a majority of legislative district party chairmen before designating or changing polling places. The bill also would require a county commission to consult with legislators in the districts affected before establishing or altering precinct boundaries.

Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, the primary sponsor of the bill, said the legislators want collaboration and to be consulted before any change is adopted. He called the Burleigh plan too drastic. Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she wants to make sure there are enough voting sites to accommodate voters.

On the other side, Glatt said, "The county's responsible for administration of elections. This proposal will usurp local authority and control."

The Tribune Editorial Board thinks it makes sense for a county to consult with district party chairmen and legislators. The decision, however, should rest with the county once information has been gathered. The parties and legislators shouldn’t have veto power. This decision should be based on what’s convenient for voters, makes it as quick and easy to vote as possible and is cost effective.

All involved should agree with these goals.

This shouldn’t be seen as a political decision, but a change to benefit the community. District chairmen and legislators shouldn’t be able to block a change. If universal vote centers aren’t efficient the county commissioners will hear about it from voters.

Burleigh should have done a better job of consulting with legislators in 2017. Burleigh County Commissioner Jim Peluso hopes the commission considers vote centers again. If the commission does, it needs input from everyone involved. It shouldn’t be complicated to consult and listen to all sides.

The Tribune Editorial Board doesn’t believe House Bill 1270 is needed to accomplish this.

A hearing on the bill will be held at 9 a.m. Friday in the Prairie Room at the Capitol by the House Political Subdivisions Committee.

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