If The Board Of Elections Goes To Norwood, Will Early Voting Site Go With It?

Feb 7, 2016

So, it looks as if the Hamilton County Board of Elections will pull out of downtown and move to Norwood at the end of the year.

If, that is, the county commissioners go along with the somewhat more expensive price tag attached to leasing the Central Parke offices on the former site of the General Motors plant.

And, miracle of miracles, this was a unanimous vote by the board of elections. Two Democrats – Tim Burke and Caleb Faux – and two Republicans – Alex Triantafilou and Chip Gerhardt – hand in hand, altogether.

Is it the dawning of the age of Aquarius?

Well, probably not.

But it was a peaceable moment last Wednesday when the board came together on this deal.

What made it so odd was that two years ago, there was a huge  knock-down, drag-out fight over whether or not the Hamilton County Board of Elections should move its operations to the former Mercy Mt. Airy Hospital site, which had been given to the county by Catholic Health Partners.

The two Democrats on the board were against it. So, too, were many African-American leaders who were concerned that moving from 824 Broadway to Mt. Airy would make it much more difficult for voters – particularly those trying to get to the board offices to cast early ballots. The two Republicans on the board were in favor of the move.

It was a tie vote, which means it went to the Ohio’s Secretary of State, Jon Husted, who cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of his fellow Republicans.

But the whole thing fell apart a year later when the county commissioners turned down the Catholic Health Partners offer because renovating the former hospital to give the county coroner a new crime lab site (that was part of the plan too, along with the board of elections and other county offices) was just too expensive.

The board of elections sort of had its back up against the wall.

It was faced with the end of its lease of three floors of the six-story building on Broadway. And, just recently, they learned that the owners of the Fairfax warehouse the board uses to store equipment wouldn’t be renewed.

So, with the help of county commissioners’ real estate people, they landed upon the Norwood location, which would cost the county $924,614 a year compared to the $651,717 a year being paid now to lease the Broadway space and the Fairfax warehouse.

Where are the crowds of people storming the board offices to demand that the board of elections not be moved out of downtown now?

Well, there are none.

Mayor John Cranley is one of the few voices crying out in the wilderness to keep early voting downtown. 

He’s opposed to the board moving out of the city (naturally enough) but he says if that is going to be the case, the board ought to leave behind an office downtown where people can come to vote during the 27-day period of early in-person voting.

“Downtown is just more accessible to more people than Norwood is, particularly those who don’t have cars,’’ Cranley told WVXU. “The vast majority of public transit lines come to Government Square downtown. We should be doing everything we can to make it easier for people to vote, not harder.”

Board of Elections chairman Tim Burke, who also chairs the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said he has spoken with Cranley, his fellow Democrat, about this.

“I’ve told John and I tell everyone this – my preference would have been to keep everything downtown, but we just couldn’t do it,’’ Burke said. “There is no place downtown that meets all of our needs.

“We are going to be in a much better situation in Norwood, with everything under one roof,’’ Burke said. “It is accessible. Downtown, on Broadway, there is no parking. Norwood has plenty of parking on the site and across the street in the old General Motors garage. And there is access by bus lines, including one that runs cross-county.’’

As state law stands now, county boards of elections are only allowed to operate one early voting location, Burke said.

“If we were to have an office downtown, we couldn’t do early voting in Norwood,’’ Burke said.  “Down the road, I hope there is an opportunity to change that law so we could have multiple sites. But that’s not possible now.”

Cranley said he offered Burke and the board a solution.

“Hell, I’ll give them the basement of city hall for free,’’ Cranley said. “We have unused space down there. We could give them what they need, at no cost.”

Board member Triantafilou, who is also chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said thanks, but no thanks to Cranley’s offer.

“Look, the fact is – and the Enquirer did a study of this a while back – Hamilton County ranks last in the state in the percentage of early in-person voters,’’ Triantafilou said. “We’re only at four percent of the total vote.

Triantafilou accused Cranley – who is up for re-election in 2017 - of playing politics with the issue.

“He’s had some trouble with the left in his party, trouble with (Council member Chris) Seelbach, trouble with some African-Americans,’’ Triantafilou said. “I think he now realizes he’s strayed too far. He’s going to spend the next year trying to shore up his left flank.”

Cranley said Triantafilou is way off base with his analysis.

“I thought the issue of voting rights was a bipartisan thing,’’ Cranley said. “What does politics have to do with this? This is about standing up for the right to vote.

“It is a bipartisan issue, making it as easy as possible for every person to cast a ballot,’’ Cranley said. “I don’t really think there should be any disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over that.”

Cranley points out, correctly, that the ultimate decision on the move to Norwood will be up to the county commissioners. And he also points out, correctly, that there is a not a whole lot he can do about the decision on where the early voting location should be.

And, as he points out two of the three are up for re-election this year.

Democratic incumbent Todd Portune is running for re-election and is opposed by Republican Andrew Pappas, an Anderson Township trustee. Republican incumbent Dennis Deters, who was appointed last month to fill a vacant county commission seat, faces Democratic State Rep. Denise Driehaus.

“Maybe the location for early voting will become an issue in that election,’’ Cranley said. “We just might end up with a majority on the county commission. And they might decide there should be an early voting location downtown next year.”

But Triantafilou said Cranley is wrong - a Democratic majority on the county commission would have no say in where the board of elections goes or where early voting takes place. 

"The decision of where to vote is safely in the hands of the board of elections and the commissioners just fund operations,'' Triantafilou said. 

Nonetheless, this is an argument that may go on for a while.