Political parties split on moving Board of Elections away from downtown

Democrats think move would lessen voter access

CINCINNATI -- Opponents of a proposal to move the Hamilton County Board of Elections away from downtown Cincinnati say some election services should remain centrally located if the move is approved.

Catholic Health Partners has offered to give Hamilton County a large vacant building near Mount Airy essentially free of charge so it no longer has to pay for upkeep.

County officials want the Kipling Avenue facility, which is the former site of Mercy Franciscan Hospital-Mount Airy, 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 a nearly 500,000-square-foot facility, other offices also should be relocated there.

The plan to consolidate the Board of Elections’ operations at the Mount Airy site is opposed by Democrats. Moving the board away from downtown will make it more difficult for some voters – including low-income and elderly residents – to access the facility for early voting.

Catholic Health Partners want an answer by Feb. 1, and the Board of Elections is scheduled to vote Monday.

So far, the board is split 2-2 along party lines about whether to OK the move.

State Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Bond Hill) noted the Mount Airy location is served by only one bus line, unlike the downtown site which is near the hub for all bus lines countywide.

“I don’t think the new location has been fully vetted, and the public hasn’t had a chance to weigh in,” Reece said.

Reece, who heads the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, is helping lead an effort to get a voting initiative on the November ballot. If approved, the so-called “voter bill of rights” would amend the Ohio Constitution to standardize some voting procedures rules for registering to vote, and how many days of early voting should be allowed.

Reece and other Democrats have said the amendment is aimed at blocking Republican attempts to change requirements for voter registration, like requiring a state-issued photo I.D. Such measures make it difficult for poor people, they added.

Similarly, many Democrats question the sudden push to move the Board of Elections’ offices.

Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou, who also sits on the Board of Elections, said the worries are unfounded.

A drop box for ballots would be kept downtown, just as there are similar boxes for tax payments, Triantafilou said.

Also, voters still would retain other options for casting ballots, he added.

“You can vote from home now for 35 days (before an election) and mail in your ballot,” Triantafilou said.

The Board of Elections currently rents several floors at an office building on Broadway downtown for its primary operations.

Additionally, it rents a warehouse in Fairfax to store voting machines, and uses a conference room at a hotel in Clifton for poll worker training.

“The big positive is this would put us all at one place and we wouldn’t have to pay rent,” Triantafilou said.

“I really think it’s more accessible because there are 500 free parking spaces in Mount Airy,” he added.

Local Democratic officials disagree.

“I’m charged with looking out for and protecting the citizens I represent,” said Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld. “For people who don’t have or can’t afford a car, this could definitely affect their access to the polls.”

Sittenfeld will present a resolution at council’s Thursday meeting to oppose the move. Although not binding, he hopes the symbolic gesture will help sway the Board of Elections’ decision.

Sittenfeld wouldn't oppose the move if elections officials agreed to keep an early voting site downtown.

"I'm not against moving the Board of Elections, but I am against moving the early voting," he said.

If the board remains deadlocked 2-2 along party lines, the decision goes to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. Husted is a Republican, and likely would vote in favor of moving the offices.

Reece questions why county officials have to move the Board of Elections to Mount Airy. Instead, she prefers another county operation with crowded offices like the Sheriff’s Department.

About 24,000 people voted in-person at the board’s offices during the presidential election in 2012, which shows people prefer the option and convenience, she added.

“We saw hundreds of people in lines wrapped around the building who wanted to vote in-person,” Reece said. “They feel more confident when there are experts from the Board of Elections there to help them, if needed.

“At a time when we’ve been dealing at the statehouse with a number of voter suppression bills and people saying they’re disenfranchised, this moves us in the wrong direction.”

For more stories by Kevin Osborne, visit www.wcpo.com/osborne . Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwcpo

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