ST. JOSEPH COUNTY -

The goal is to save taxpayer dollars and raise voter awareness. But before St. Joseph County consolidates more than 150 polling places into about 40 vote centers, you need to know what they are and how to use them.

County Clerk Terri Rethlake talked with WSBT about her biggest challenge with vote centers and her plan to deal with it.

Rethlake said she knows the concept of going anywhere in the county to vote is brand new for everyone. At a vote center meeting Thursday, the clerk and others on the county’s vote center committee hashed out a roadmap for how they’ll get the word out.

WSBT asked a handful of customers at South Bend’s main post office on Monroe Street if they know where they’re going to vote next year.

“Good bloody question,” said Paul Kingston, who lives in South Bend. “I heard something about the big centers.”

When asked if she knew what a voting center is, Greene Township resident Kate Johnson replied, “I’ve heard of them. I know that they’re going to consolidate.”

“That’s the number one importance to the committee is educating the public to know that we're going toward these vote centers next year,” Rethlake said. “Not in the fall, but next year.”

Right now, you can vote absentee 28 days before an election at the County Services Annex in Mishawaka or the County City Building in South Bend. That won’t change.

But starting next spring, you’ll also be able to vote absentee at 21 satellite centers around the county.

And on Election Day, you’ll be able to vote at any of 40 vote centers.

“We’re going to use WSBT’s Facebook, Tribune accounts from Facebook, we’re going to try to piggy back on some of the social media accounts out there,” Rethlake said.

The vote center committee is taking lessons from a public relations firm to get the word out. Along with the social media campaign, they’ll also send mailers to every address in the county – even people who are not registered to vote.

Elkhart County did that earlier this year when it moved to vote centers then became inundated with phone calls. Rethlake said she learned from that.

“Rather than just a post card, letter size would be 10 cents more and we could include a brochure which is something Elkhart County did not do,” Rethlake said. “And perhaps that would answer some questions so many people wouldn't have to call in.”

The vote center advertising campaign will probably cost around $110,000 taxpayer dollars, Rethlake said, adding vote centers don’t save money right away because counties have to buy new equipment and advertise.

But in 2016 and beyond, she estimated vote centers would save about $100,000 annually.

The committee set a September 1 deadline to take a vote center plan to the county Election Board for approval. You’ll still vote at your normal polling place this November – the switch in St. Joseph County... doesn't happen until the 2015 primary.