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Plan to move Board of Elections stirs passion across political spectrum

Posted at 7:59 PM, Jan 28, 2014

CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County commissioners will vote Wednesday whether to accept a former hospital site in Mount Airy as a gift, but it’s still unclear if the Board of Elections will be moving there.

It appears likely the county commission will accept the facility, and that at least two members of the three-person commission will OK the Board of Elections’ move there.

But because the Board of Elections deadlocked 2-2 Monday on the possible move, the final decision rests with Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

Moving the Board of Elections’ early voting location away from downtown Cincinnati is sharply opposed by some people, including most local Democratic officials and the NAACP’s local chapter.

Critics say the Mount Airy site is too remote and is only served by one bus line. As a result, they believe it will hamper access for low-income voters who don’t own a vehicle.

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 countywide don’t own a vehicle and rely on public transit.

Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld wrote a column on The Huffington Post website opposing the move.

“So, should people who cannot afford a car or are not physically able to operate a car have any less access to voting?” Sittenfeld wrote. “Absolutely not.”

Local NAACP President Ishton Morton has called the proposal “a deliberate and purposeful move to suppress and deny the voting rights of minorities.”

Husted, a Republican, is facing reelection this year against Democrat Nina Turner. She opposes the move.

“County boards of elections should place early voting locations near public transportation and in areas where voters travel in their daily lives,” Turner said. “Moving the Hamilton County Board of Elections to Mount Airy, as proposed, achieves neither of these goals.”

So far, Husted hasn’t weighed into the dispute. Instead, he spoke with Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley by telephone Tuesday morning. During the call, Husted said he hoped local officials could reach a compromise without his intervention.

“Mr. Husted said he would prefer that it be worked out locally,” said Jay Kincaid, Cranley’s chief of staff.

“He said he does reserve the right to break the tie, if that is what needs to be done,” Kincaid added. “He encouraged John to keep working to find a solution.”

Cranley and State Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Bond Hill) have offered two alternatives to moving the entire Board of Elections’ operation to Mount Airy. They are:

  • Moving all of the board’s functions into a city-owned building at the corner of Seventh and Elm streets, which once was part of the Shillito’s Department Store. The 280,000 square-foot site would be leased for a $1 fee; or
  • Using a city-owned storefront on Sixth Street, across from the convention center, as an early voting satellite office. The 8,000 square-foot space would let people register to vote and cast ballots downtown.

If the latter option were chosen, it would prohibit any early voting at the Mount Airy facility. That’s because Ohio law currently only allows one early voting location per county.

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.

The crime lab would only fill about one-quarter of the site. Other county services also should be relocated there to make the deal feasible, commissioners said.

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.

Consolidating operations in Mount Airy makes good fiscal sense, said County Commissioner Greg Hartmann.

“We got a recommendation from our nonpartisan administration to co-locate the Board of Elections and the crime lab in Mount Airy,” Hartmann said. “I think the site is perfect for that.”

Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco, a Democrat who brokered use of the former hospital, said she already devised a plan to share the space with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office and the Cincinnati Police Department.

Those functions would fill the remainder of the site, Sammarco said. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil, also a Democrat, said he would prefer the public not having access to a law enforcement site, if he moves some operations to Mount Airy.

Hartmann, though, said the sheriff’s plan involves putting up to 90 jail beds for female inmates in Mount Airy, to lessen overcrowding at downtown’s Justice Center.

“That’s not on the table,” Hartmann said. “We can’t afford to do that right now.”

Moving the Board of Elections is a practical solution to its current space limitations, said County Commission President Chris Monzel said.

“We want them there because, financially, it makes (the deal) viable,” Monzel said. “However, if they don’t want to move there, we’re looking at other alternatives about what offices could be moved there.”

Commissioner Todd Portune, the sole Democrat on the commission, thinks the county can make good use of the hospital site, whether the Board of Elections is there or not.

“You can’t make the move unless the issue of absentee and early voting is addressed satisfactorily,” Portune said.

Like several others, Portune wants early voting to remain downtown: “The general public doesn’t care where we store things or where the administrative offices are,” he said. “It’s a question of accessibility and losing the right the vote that is problematic.”

But Monzel and Hartmann, both Republicans, don’t see the need to keep early voting downtown as long as a 24-hour dropbox is offered for ballots.

Hartmann rejects claims of voter suppression.

“I’m trying to take politics out of this,” Hartmann said. “The extremes on all sides have made statements that are grossly exaggerated. I’m looking at this from a good government viewpoint.”

Who Are the Decision Makers?

** Greg Hartmann: or (513) 946-4406

** Chris Monzel: or (513) 946-4409

** Todd Portune: or (513) 946-4401

** Jon Husted: Via or (614) 466-2655