CINCINNATI -- The Hamilton County Board of Elections appears headed toward a move to Mount Airy.
After heated debate, the board deadlocked 2-2 Monday morning about whether to move its offices to the former Mercy Franciscan Hospital-Mount Airy site on Kipling Avenue.
The two Republican board members – Alex Triantafilou and Chip Gerhardt – favored the move. They said it would allow the board to have more space and save money on rent.
Hamilton County had among the lowest turnouts for early voting among Ohio’s major urban counties in 2012, Triantafilou said. He thinks the inaccessibility of the board’s downtown offices is part of the cause.
Noting the Mount Airy site has 500 free parking spaces, while the downtown Cincinnati site has none, Triantafilou said, “I fundamentally believe our number of early, in-person voting will go up at the Mount Airy location.”
The two Democratic board members – Tim Burke and Caleb Faux – were opposed. They said moving the offices to a more suburban location would disenfranchise voters who depend on bus service to use early voting. The Mount Airy site is served by only one bus line.
“I am hesitant to talk about voter disenfranchisement but I am absolutely convinced that's what it feels like to a lot of people,” Burke said.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who breaks tie-votes among boards of elections, will now decide the issue. Husted is a Republican, and is likely to OK the move.
More than 24,000 people cast early voting ballots at the Board of Elections' downtown offices in 2012. Also, about 42,000 households in Hamilton County don't own a vehicle.
Even if the move ultimately is approved, board members agreed to keep early voting located downtown through the 2016 presidential election.
Under Ohio law, only one early voting location per county is allowed. Some residents said state lawmakers should change the law so multiple locations may be used.
Hamilton County officials want the Mount Airy site primarily for a new, expanded regional crime lab.
It would cost $56 million to build a new crime lab, but only about $20 to $25 million to renovate part of the hospital for that purpose.
But county commissioners have said because the crime lab would only occupy 100,000 square feet of the 400,000-square-foot facility, other offices also should be relocated there.
The hospital site was located by Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, Hamilton County's coroner.
"I went and found the building," Sammarco said. "I went and asked almost every single business to help me find a building and Catholic Health Partners stepped up."
About three weeks, county commissioners informed Sammarco about their proposal to also locate the Board of Elections at the site.
"My reaction was what happened to all the plans we made for the Hamilton County sheriff and the Cincinnati police to use parts of the site?" she said. "It would definitely fill the building."
Between the regional crime lab, and locating some sheriff and police functions at the site, there is little to no room left for other operations, Sammarco added. The Board of Elections proposal muddies the waters unnecessarily, she said.
Sammarco, a Democrat, criticized commissioners for not acting sooner to find adequate space for the crime lab.
"They've spent seven years talking about it, but did they go talking to businesses looking for space?" she asked. "This was a need pointed out to me on my first day in office, and I took action."
For more stories by Kevin Osborne, visit www.wcpo.com/osborne . Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwcpo