Washington County Board of Elections to move today

MARIETTA – Today is moving day for the Washington County Board of Elections.

After years of looking for additional space and trying to adapt to meet accessibility and privacy requirements as the site became a polling place with the advent of no-fault absentee balloting, the office is going from the first floor of the Washington County Courthouse on Putnam Street to the lower level of the Children Services building at 204 Davis Ave., down the hill from Marietta High School.

“I think the location’s going to be much more convenient for the voters – plenty of parking, easy access, going to give them a lot more room,” said Washington County Commissioner Tim Irvine.

But some people have objected to the move from the central downtown location to one that, although just a little over two miles away, seems much more off the beaten path.

“I’m concerned that it’s making the board of elections less accessible because of the move basically to the outskirts of town,” said Marietta City Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward.

The courthouse location gave people doing business and shopping downtown an opportunity to cast early ballots while they were already downtown, Vukovic said.

“Now to get to the board of elections, you really have to go out of your way,” he said. “It’s going to take a while for people to learn where that is and whether it’s actually worthwhile to go out there.”

Hupp and other election officials said they’ve heard those issues raised by others as well.

“We’re not going to find the perfect solution, but it’s going to solve a lot of the problems we had at the current location,” said Jim Huggins, a member of the election board.

Those include accessibility. Under Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, a polling place – which the office becomes when early voting starts – is supposed to have handicapped parking with an access aisle, additional space for someone to exit their vehicle to, for example, get into a wheelchair.

While there is a designated space in front of the courthouse, “they’d be stepping right out on the street,” Hupp said.

Peoples Bank has allowed the board to utilize parking spaces in its nearby lot during previous early voting terms. The Davis Avenue office, located around back from the Children Services entrance, will have a pair of designated pull-in spaces, plus five or six more dedicated specifically for the board of elections, Hupp said.

Marietta City Councilman Steve Thomas, D-3rd Ward, said his only concern with the move is accessibility for disabled voters. There is a Community Action Bus Line stop beside the courthouse, which made the current location handy for people who rely on the buses, said Thomas, a former regular rider of the line.

“It needs to be added to the bus line, so people can actually get out and vote,” he said.

David Brightbill, executive director of Washington-Morgan Community Action, said the office will be added to an existing route during the early voting period, which starts Oct. 1 for the Nov. 5 election.

“The route had enough slack in it that we think will be able to do it,” he said. “It didn’t look like a problem and obviously we want to encourage people to vote.”

People can also register to vote until Oct. 7.

Alicia Hunt, a 25-year-old member of the Marietta’s Disabilities Advisory Committee with Thomas, said she usually votes early at the board office and utilizes CABL for transportation. If the new office is on a route, “I have no concerns,” she said.

State election law prohibits campaigning within 100 feet of the entrance of a polling place. The location of the current board office makes it difficult to enforce that, especially when it comes to unintentional situations, Huggins said.

The board would never allow someone to enter a precinct wearing a campaign button or let people discuss candidates inside a polling place, he said. But what happens when a candidate goes to work in the courthouse wearing his or her own button or when people walking down the stairs or sitting at the nearby cafe casually discuss a candidate or issue?

“We use curtains to kind of seclude and give privacy to the voters, but there’s still a lot of activity going on,” Hupp said.

The new site will have a room where people can cast ballots after filling out their paperwork in the lobby.

Storage was also an issue, with voting machines spending time at a Merchants Five Star warehouse and the county garage over the years. Now they’re locked in a secure room off the board conference room but not directly adjacent to the office. Other items are stored in various places, including an old jail cell in the courthouse.

Huggins said the move was not taken lightly. It’s been discussed for several years, and other locations were considered, including the Dye Building on Putnam Street that the county once owned and other places in the courthouse or even renting somewhere. They kept coming back to the Children Services space.

“I think what the board has to do is look at all the factors that affect our choice of location,” Huggins said.

Hupp agreed people will have to make a specific trip to the new location to cast a ballot, but she noted that folks who don’t want to do that can still apply for and cast absentee ballots by mail.