Moving the board of elections is no slam dunk

Jan 25, 2014

For years now, those people who cast early ballots in person at the Hamilton County Board of Elections have done so by going to the board’s offices at 824 Broadway downtown.

If a majority of the county commissioners and the two Republicans on the board of elections get their way, they will have to head to Mt. Airy to do that.

And a growing chorus of voices – mostly, but not entirely, Democrats, and most of the African-American leadership of Cincinnati – are saying that would be a raw deal for the thousands of voters who depend on public transportation to get around.

Mayor John Cranley threw a new wrinkle into the discussion Thursday when he offered the county free use of part of the old Shillito’s building at Seventh and Race downtown to make it the new home of the board of elections.

The extremely contentious issue may come to a head at a meeting of the board of elections Monday morning.

Here’s what it is about:

Catholic Health Partners owns the former Mercy Mt. Airy Hospital site on Kipling Road and is willing to give it – the 500,000 square foot building, surrounding land, the whole shebang – to Hamilton County gratis. You think there is no free lunch? Well, there is.

The catch is that Catholic Health Partners would like a decision from the county commissioners on whether they will take the property by the end of this month.

Moving to the former hospital is an exciting prospect for county coroner Lakshmi Sammarco. She is ecstatic about the prospect of moving her crime lab to the spacious former hospital site. Her current crime lab is over-crowded and outdated; and the county commissioners want to give her what she wants.

Moving the board of elections to Mt. Airy would save the county the $700,000 in rent it pays to share the 824 Broadway building with elements of the Cincinnati Police Department, although the commissioners would have to come up with the money to renovate a hospital into a crime lab and board of elections offices. County officials say it would take a year to 18 months to make the renovations.

So, it seems, the county commissioners want the board of elections to go along, in the belief that the county needs to have more functions at the Mt. Airy site than just a new crime lab to make it cost effective.

All four members of the board of elections – two Democrats and two Republican - say they want Sammarco to have her new crime lab at the former hospital.

Where the board of elections differs is on the subject of early in-person voting at the board of elections. The Democrats – Tim Burke and Caleb Faux – would be amenable to a move if they could keep a space in downtown Cincinnati for people to come and vote early.

The Republicans on the board of elections – Alex Triantafilou and Chip Gerhardt – say that’s not necessary and that early in person voting could just as easily take place at the Mt. Airy location. They are holding to this position, even though two of the three county commissioners – Democrat Todd Portune and Republican Chris Monzel – say they have no problem with keeping an office downtown for early voting in the 35 days before an election.

Ohio law wouldn’t allow early in person voting at both the Mt. Airy headquarters and a satellite office downtown.

In 2012, 24,151 persons went to the board of elections downtown to cast their ballots. Nobody is quite sure how many of them got there on Metro buses, but Burke said it is a significant number and that those people were predominately African-Americans who don’t own cars.

“There is one bus line that goes by the Mt. Airy site,’’ Burke said. “If someone lives in Avondale or Madisonville and has no car, they would have to take multiple buses and it would take forever to get there.

“This would disenfranchise some people, particularly African-American voters,’’ Burke said.

Ishton Morton, the president of the Cincinnati Chapter of the NAACP agrees. Morton went to a board of elections meeting Monday and said that a move to Mt. Airy would be unfair to many African-American voters. He said he has been in touch with the national NAACP to see what the options would be if the decision is made to move.

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, headed by State Rep. Alicia Reece of Bond Hill, has come out against moving the board of elections downtown.

And a six-member majority of a Cincinnati City Council – including Republican Charlie Winburn – voted on a resolution introduced by Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld urging the county not to make the Mt. Airy move.

Triantafilou told WVXU that the Democrats, the NAACP and other opponents of the move to Mt. Airy have overblown the early in-person voting problem.

“Of those 24,000 who voted early at the board of elections in 2012, a miniscule amount of them actually took mass transit to get there,’’ Triantafilou said.

He said people who come downtown in their cars have to find a place to park – not always easy around 824 Broadway – and pay parking meters or garage fees.

“The old hospital in Mt. Airy has 500 parking spaces – free parking,’’ Triantafilou said. “The fact that there are 500 free parking spaces might make it more palatable for people to come to Mt. Airy and cast their ballots.”

Besides, Triantafilou said, anyone can obtain an absentee ballot from the board of elections and mail it in. He said if the move is made, the board of elections could keep a 24-hour-a-day drop box downtown for people to drop off their ballots “if they don’t believe it will get there by mailing it.”

Then there is Cranley and his proposition of moving the board into the old Shillito’s building downtown.  Cranley said he would be happy to cooperate with the county in moving other city offices – such as the police department offices now at 824 Broadway – into the Mt. Airy building to help them fill the space.

It doesn’t appear the Republicans on the board of elections are much interested in that proposal.

One way or another, it is likely that the board of elections will vote Monday or whether it would accept the move. It is likely to be a tie vote along party lines.

The board’s lawyer has told them that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, would cast the tie-breaking vote, even though this is not strictly speaking an election law issue.

And, if they wanted to, the county commissioners could just impose the move on the board – although they don’t seem inclined to do that.

But if the decision is made to move the board downtown, the battle will continue – perhaps in the courts, if a lawsuit claiming the move was a violation of voting rights is filed.

This move is a lot more complicated than calling Two Men and a Truck.