Howell County News/ Amanda MendezHowell County News/ Amanda Mendez

Clear Springs polling place closes

Voters in Pierce Township lost their local polling location this month. Following an inspection of the Clear Springs Community Center polling location, Texas County Clerk Peggy Seyler sent a letter to voters informing them of her decision and their new polling location. 
“After my inspection, I have decided to close your voting location and send you to another location to vote,” says the letter Seyler reports was mailed on April 18. The letters are not dated. 
“I know this will be an inconvenience for some but keep in mind you can always request a ballot sent to your place of residence, or you may come into my [Houston] office to vote…I hope you as a taxpayer understand my decision and respect it,” concludes the letter. 
New voter cards were printed on April 20 and mailed on April 24. With that, Pierce Township voters were assigned to a polling location in either Summersville or Cabool. 
As the local election authority, Seyler is empowered by Missouri law to combine polling places “for any election,” and the notice must be made to voters prior to the next election. In short, it is not necessary for an election authority to involve constituents in the decision to close a polling place beforehand. The law only requires that voters be notified before the election. 
Voters interviewed by this publication report receiving the letter from the election authority and their new voter cards on the same day. 
Why it’s closed
The reasons Seyler gave for closing the polling place in Clear Springs were handicap inaccessibility, a shortage of election judges, and financial considerations. 
In an interview with Howell County News, Seyler said the building is not accessible for the disabled, mentioning specifically gravel pathways, a concrete entrance ramp, and an inaccessible restroom. Voters interviewed by the News disagree whether these features make the building inaccessible to the handicapped. Township Board President Jeff Malam agrees the concerns are valid, but longtime resident Linda Bradford argues there are handicapped residents who regularly access the building without any difficulty.
For every election, two election judges from each political party are required. Seyler reports that there is difficulty staffing election judges in Pierce Township, “all the time.” Republican election judge Paul Thomas confirmed to Howell County News that the polling location was, in fact, short a judge in April’s general election. 
“I could get in trouble for that,” Seyler explained.
The numbers: cost and turnout
“Low voter turnout” at this location does not justify the expense of its operation, says Seyler’s letter. In a May 6 interview, she reported that Pierce Township voters have had an average turnout of 27% over the last eight elections. With 371 registered voters in the township at large, that makes about a hundred voters who must now travel to Cabool or Summersville to vote. 
There were 2,510 ballots cast in all of Texas County in April, meaning Pierce Township voters would be about 4% of the county-wide electorate. However, this April 233 ballots were cast in Pierce Township, meaning they represented nine percent of voters in the general election. 
Overall, Texas County voters turned out at a rate of fifteen percent in April. By contrast, Howell County voter turnout that day was eight percent. 
According to Seyler, it costs the county ten dollars per voter to operate a polling place. An additional expense is a necessary update of the county’s voting equipment. 
“I will be having to update my voting equipment and the cost is excessive,” reads the letter. Seyler did not know the cost of the update per polling location but did mention each of the new machines will cost $10,000. Closing Clear Springs as a polling location will save Texas County taxpayers money, Seyler said. 
Voter response
Seyler reports that her office has received nine calls from voters about the change. Of these, four were calling to voice their support for the change, citing concerns with “harassment” they have faced in Clear Springs.
Howell County News spoke to five Pierce Township voters, and their responses were mixed. 
Georgia Williamson said the change will not inconvenience her family, “as much as others.” Voting in Summersville is, “not a real big deal” for her because she travels there frequently for business. 
Jeff Malam said, “I want to vote so if I have to go to Summersville, it does not affect me at all.”
Some, like Paul Thomas, acknowledged the hardship a ten-plus mile drive would pose to working voters. 
“It’s an inconvenience for people who work and whose resources are limited. Most people here work and trade in Willow Springs or Mountain View. A couple people are saying they won’t vote if they have to travel,” Thomas said. “But there’s two sides to it. I have nothing against the county.”
“Not having a convenient opportunity to vote is ultimately voter suppression,” Stephanie Beltz-Price told Howell County News. “Our township has been in turmoil for a few years. I feel like they think if they shut down our precinct, we will just give up.”
Employed in West Plains, Beltz-Price is one of the working voters who will have to make a special trip to vote. 
“Previously, I was able to vote on my way to work as most people do,” she said. 
Malam, however, insists that there is a core pool of committed voters in the precinct who will continue to vote despite the inconvenience. 
Linda Bradford disagrees, calling the move, “a ploy to keep people from voting.” With this change, she will have to drive sixteen miles to vote in Cabool instead of the one mile to Clear Springs Community Center. 
In the end, the change is the election authority’s to make, and according to Seyler, the conditions in Clear Springs “are not what it should be.”
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