In Cincinnati, a proposal to move the Hamilton County Board of Elections office from downtown to a site several miles outside the central business district has turned into a heated political battle, drawing charges of voter suppression and grandstanding.
The BoE is the county’s sole early voting location. Opponents say moving it from the heart of the city, where the region's bus lines converge, to an area eight and a half miles out (and served by only one bus line) will make early voting harder for the county's car-less, including more than 21 percent of Cincinnati's population.
Those in favor of the move say that 500 free parking spaces at the new location will make it more accessible to "the large majority of citizens who rely on cars to visit us," according to a letter from county’s GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou to party supporters.
Currently, the situation is at a stalemate. The two Democrats on the board voted against the move, and the two Republicans are voting for it. The state’s Secretary of State, Republican John Husted, could break the tie, but he has so far urged the board to work out a compromise without his intervention, although he has also said that keeping the early voting location downtown would be "logical."
Ohio's electoral system drew negative national attention in 2012, when voters stood in line at the polls for hours. Many locations, including Hamilton County, were accused of trying to suppress voters, particularly African Americans and urban dwellers.
For P.G. Sittenfeld, a city council member in Cincinnati, this is about making it easy for voters to get to the polls. "Broadly speaking, I divide the actions of our democracy into those that increase access to the ballot box and those that decrease access," he says. Sittenfeld points out that 24,151 people cast early votes at the downtown location in 2012. "Every single vote matters," he says.
A move of the early voting location would likely not go unchallenged if it were approved. According to Cincinnati.com, Hamilton County Democratic chairman Tim Burke said in an email to county commissioners this week that "the Cincinnati Branch of the NAACP is in touch with the NAACP's national voting rights attorneys and that the NAACP will likely bring a Voting Rights Act suit if such a move occurs."
In 1999, the Department of Justice prevented the relocation of a polling place in McComb, Mississippi, to a location that would be difficult for residents of a primarily African American neighborhood to reach without access to a private motor vehicle.
The GOP's Triantafilou points out that Hamilton County has the worst record in the state when it comes to early voting. He thinks the new location would provide better access for voters outside the city.
"It's very difficult for a lot of us to accept this notion of voter suppression," Triantafilou says. He says that the proposal for moving the BoE includes keeping a drop box for ballots downtown, and that the new location would have better access for disabled voters (presumably those who can drive).
But Sittenfeld says that the proposed new location would do nothing to solve the issue of low early voter participation in the county. Because the local transit system runs on a hub and spoke system, many bus users would have to travel downtown, wait up to an hour for a connection, and then catch a bus out to the new site.
"This will only exacerbate the issue, not improve it in any way," says Sittenfeld. "If you can’t afford a car, or are not in a position to operate a car, you should still be able to vote." While the parking at the new location would be free, Sittenfeld says, "owning a car isn’t free." And neither is the bus.
The issue will likely be resolved one way or another in the next few weeks. But it again raises the question of to what degree car ownership is necessary to be a fully enfranchised citizen in the United States.