COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted broke a tie vote Friday afternoon and approved moving the Hamilton County Board of Elections to Mount Airy after the 2016 election.
Board members deadlocked 2-2 in January about whether to move its offices to the former Mercy Franciscan Hospital site on Kipling Avenue.
The two Republican board members – Alex Triantafilou and Chip Gerhardt – favored the move away from downtown Cincinnati. They said it would allow the board to consolidate its operations and save money on rent.
But 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.
Husted, a Republican, said he agreed moving the administrative office out of the current cramped space on Broadway was in the board’s best interests.
Still, Husted urged local officials to reach a bipartisan agreement either on how to improve access to early voting services in Mount Airy or in moving early voting to an alternate site.
“Between now and 2017, I direct the members of the Hamilton County Board of Elections (either current or future) to work together to either find bipartisan agreement on improving early voting services at the Mount Airy site or jointly working out an alternative early voting location that works for all of Hamilton County,” Husted wrote in a letter to the board.
“Three years should be plenty of time to make improvements to the Mount Airy site or conduct a thorough review of all possible facilities and determine what site best serves the voters of Hamilton County,” the letter added.
More than 24,000 people cast early voting ballots at the board’s downtown offices during the 2012 presidential election. An estimated 42,000 households county-wide don’t own a vehicle and rely on public transit.
Among the groups urging the board to keep early voting downtown are the NAACP’s local chapter, the League of Women Voters and the ACLU of Ohio.
Mayor John Cranley and State Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Bond Hill) have offered two alternatives to keep some or all of the Board of Elections’ operations in downtown Cincinnati. Both involve offering city-owned property for a nominal $1 fee.
Burke called Husted's decision "disappointing."
"The Republican secretary of state sided with the Republican board members," said Burke, who also is chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. "This is the same guy who said it was logical to keep early voting downtown. What happened to him to change that?"
Referring to Husted's call for a compromise on early voting, Burke said, "There was plenty of opportunity to find a compromise and there still could be a compromise, but we're way far away from that right now. I think it very well could end up in federal court."
Triantafilou, who also is Hamilton County Republican Party chairman, rejected notions the move is about voter suppression. The board's aging downtown offices are crowded and public access -- particularly for disabled people -- is limited.
"It's the right decision," Triantafilou said. "Being last in the state for early voting turnout is not a good thing. Access to the downtown office is atrocious. I will continue to fight to have early voting in Mount Airy."
The GOP chairman thinks local Democrats are using the issue to motivate their base of voters.
"I think the Democrats are just playing political games with this," Triantafilou said. "When push comes to shove... they will realize it makes sense to move to the geographic center of the county."
Hamilton County officials want the Mount Airy facility primarily for a new, expanded regional crime lab.
It would cost $56 million to build a new crime lab, but only about $25 million to renovate part of the hospital for that purpose, county officials said.
But the crime lab would only fill about one-quarter of the site.
The Board of Elections currently rents three sites: its main offices downtown, a Fairfax warehouse to store voting machines, and a Clifton conference center to train poll workers.
State Sen. Nina Turner, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, blasted Husted's decision.
"I will work to make sure that every early voting location is accessible to those who are disabled, easily available to those who rely on public transportation and most useful to the greatest number of people possible who rely on voting early to cast a ballot," Turner said.
Ohio law should be changed to allow more than one early voting location per county, she added.
"The situation in Hamilton County highlighted the unnecessary legal restrictions that allow counties to have only one early voting location," Turner said. "Legislation designed to fix this was introduced more than a year ago but has not received a single hearing in the legislature."
Also on Friday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed two bills into law that affect elections.
Senate Bill 238 shortens the early voting
period by six days, eliminating the portion where voters may simultaneously register to vote and cast an early in-person ballot. The period also was known as “golden week."
Senate Bill 205 prohibits individual county boards of election from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications. It allows the Ohio secretary of state to mail them, statewide, but only if lawmakers allocate money to pay for it.
“The job of our elected officials is to expand access to the ballot box, not deny it,” said ACLU spokesman Mike Brickner. “Today was a bad day for Ohio voters."
The National Action Network's Greater Cincinnati chapter was angered by Husted’s decision.
"The fact that this decision came within 48 hours of the Ohio House’s decision to pass two measures clearly aimed at making voting less accessible points to a dangerous trend of voter suppression,” said Bishop Bobby Hilton, chapter president. “We need our government officials to work with the people, not work against them.”