EBENSBURG – Cambria County’s Board of Elections voted unanimously Tuesday to pursue a petition that would consolidate 12 existing polling places into six.
Two of the precincts proposed to merge are in East Taylor Township, where the line for the state’s congressional districts was redrawn earlier this year and separated it between the 13th and 15th districts.
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court redrew the district maps after ruling that the previous one created in 2011 violated the state constitution due to excessive gerrymandering.
Along with a section of East Taylor, the 13th includes Johnstown, Conemaugh, Lower Yoder, Middle Taylor, Stonycreek, Upper Yoder, West Taylor, Brownstown, Daisytown, Dale, East Conemaugh, Ferndale, Franklin, Lorain, Southmont and Westmont.
All other local municipalities are in the 15th, and the map partitions off Johnstown, Cambria’s largest municipality with approximately 20,000 residents, from much of the county, including the John Murtha Johnstown–Cambria County Airport and University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
Consolidating East Taylor precincts 1 and 2, along with 3 and 4, will eliminate confusion for 525 township voters in the 15th and 1,063 township voters in the 13th, said Shirley Crowl, director of elections for Cambria County.
The other proposed precincts include Reade Township north and south; Johnstown center 1 and 2; Johnstown’s 8th Ward 1 and 2; and Johnstown Old Conemaugh with Johnstown’s 11th Ward.
The Johnstown center precincts are approximately a block away from each other, according to Cambria County Solicitor Bill Barbin. Registration data say 698 voters are registered to cast ballots between both locations.
Crowl said in Reade Township, 844 total registered voters would be affected by the merge of precincts.
In the 8th Ward, 464 voters would be affected by precinct consolidation, with 82 voters assigned to one of two existing polling places.
Crowl suggested “Old Conemaugh Woodvale” as the new name for combining precincts in Johnstown Old Conemaugh and its 11th Ward precincts, where a combined 699 voters are registered.
Narrowing down the county’s current 133 precincts by six polling places would save approximately $8,500 per year, which Crowl said is a conservative estimate.
It’s becoming more difficult to obtain poll workers for each precinct, she added, with at least six required at each voting location.
The board’s decision also comes on the heels of a recent directive from the state that will require county election officials to purchase voting machines with voter-verifiable paper ballots or paper records of votes cast in the future.
That directive, announced in February by acting Secretary of State Robert Torres, said county election officials would be informed of the specifications to consider when purchasing new equipment in an effort to modernize and improve voting auditability and security.
Crowl said the county’s machines, which are nearly 10 years old, have not been decertified by state officials, but she is starting to arrange visits with vendors to begin the search for new machines that meet the directive’s qualifications.
Reducing the number of voting precincts could save additional funds. Crowl said with machines estimated at $3,500 each, the county would need 10 fewer machines and save $35,000 if the petition is approved.
At least two machines are required at each polling place, she said. The county currently uses 438 voting machines each Election Day, but owns 500 in case machines are down for maintenance or malfunction at any point.
When the directive was first announced, Crowl said replacing the county’s voting machines will cost more than $1.5 million and is a decision that will be made with input from elected officials and community members.
Barbin said he plans to file the petition with the state and with the county’s Court of Common Pleas before the end of July. Voters affected by the consolidations will be notified and permitted to speak at a public hearing on the matter before a decision is made by a judge.
Crowl said a decision should be in place before November’s general election.
“That’s why we’re moving so quickly on it,” she said.
In 2013, county commissioners petitioned the court for approval to reduce the number of voting precincts from 165 to 127.
Consolidation talks at that time came from the county’s declining population and voter registrations.
Following objections from a few voters and a public hearing held in the matter, a three-judge panel approved all but a handful of those proposed consolidations.
Some of those rejections in 2013 were polling place consolidations the county is again petitioning for, including East Taylor 1 and 2; Johnstown center 1 and 2; and Johnstown’s 8th Ward 1 and 2.
The judges also denied merging East Taylor Township 2 and 3; Susquehanna Township north and south; and West Carroll Township north and south in 2013.
Approved consolidations in 2013 included precincts in Adams Township; Lower Yoder Township; Westmont Borough; Barr Township; Blacklick Township; Conemaugh Township; Cresson Borough; Croyle Township; East Conemaugh; Ferndale; Gallitzin Borough; Gallitzin Township; Geistown; Johnstown’s Kernville section; Johnstown’s Prospect section; Johnstown’s 7th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 20th wards; Nanty Glo; Portage Township; Richland Township; South Fork Borough; Southmont Borough; and Upper Yoder Township.
At the time of the 2013 precinct consolidations, county officials estimated an annual savings of $80,000 – or $40,000 for each election – from fewer polling places and election workers.