As a number of Nelsonville residents and others condemn votes to move and/or consolidate several polling places in Athens County as “voter suppression,” Athens County Board of Elections (BOE) officials argue that the moves were made to achieve a beneficial long-term goal.
BOE Director Debbie Quivey said Friday that the elections board has been working for more than a decade to consolidate polling places throughout the county, and the recent changes are “the last phase” of that larger effort.
“When they talk about moving these single precincts, they seem to think that they’re being picked on,” Quivey said of residents who have expressed opposition to the relocation of polling places in Nelsonville, Lodi Township, and within the Alexander School District. “They haven’t (been picked on); it’s just that they’re the last phase of it.”
In February, the county BOE voted 3-1 to consolidate a total of nine single-precinct polling locations:
• Athens South precinct was moved from Hocking Valley Sportsman’s Club to the Beacon School on Ohio Rt. 56 on Athens’ far West Side.
• Athens Baker remains at the Beacon School, creating a multi-precinct location there.
• Carthage Township was moved from the Carthage Township Volunteer Fire & Rescue building to Federal-Hocking Middle School.
• Rome Township remains at Federal-Hocking Middle School, creating a multi-precinct location there.
• New Marshfield was moved from New Marshfield Fire Department to Alexander High School.
• Lodi Township was moved from Shade Community Center to Alexander High School.
• Waterloo Township was moved from Waterloo Community Senior Center to Alexander High School.
• Buchtel village was moved to the C&J Tax building on Nelsonville’s far east side.
• York Township was moved from York Nazarene Church to the C&J Tax building.
• Nelsonville precincts 1, 2, 3 and 4 were also relocated from two locations at the Nelsonville Public Library and Wesleyan Church to the C&J Tax building.
Opponents of the changes, especially those affecting Nelsonville, rallied in uptown Athens Saturday, calling the moves “voter suppression.” They’re urging citizens to attend the county BOE’s regular meeting at 10 a.m. this Wednesday to register their concerns. Though speakers at Saturday's rally urged the BOE to move that meeting to a larger venue, Quivey said Monday there's no plans to move the meeting from its scheduled location, in a room in the BOE's office suite on the first floor of the Athens County Courthouse Annex building.
Quivey explained that in 2007 she and BOE Deputy Director Penny Brooks began looking at precincts and polling locations “to see if we couldn’t improve them,” Quivey said, adding that the Board of Elections voted to move the first polling location that year.
“At 15 different board meetings since 2007, we have moved to 37 new locations… involving 72 precincts,” Quivey said, explaining that some of those locations no longer exist (now there are 16 locations total), and some of those precincts may have been moved multiple times during that 12-year period.
“It was always to improve,” Quivey said.
Since 2007, Athens County Board of Election member Kate McGuckin, who was the sole dissenting vote last month for moving two polling places in Nelsonville and consolidating three polling places at Alexander High School, “was our first board member that ever voted ‘no’ on moving a location,” according to meeting minutes, Quivey said.
The primary goal, Quivey said, has been to consolidate single-precinct voting locations into multi-precinct locations because the latter are more efficient. Though previous reports in The NEWS cited issues with cell-phone reception and cost of certain locations as primary motivators, Quivey and Brooks said those issues are secondary reasons for relocating the polling places.
For example, Quivey said, the Shade Community Center, former polling place to the Lodi Township precinct, “took a lot of heat” after a previous Athens NEWS article stated that the cost of renting that facility was a factor in the BOE decision to relocate that polling place.
“The president there called and actually offered the building to us free,” Quivey said. “We told him thank you… (but) we’re going to have to turn you down. Money is not the issue… It’s that you’re a single precinct.”
Quivey said the Ohio Secretary of State’s office administered a “directive” in 2017 calling for single-precinct polling locations to be consolidated into multi-precinct locations.
According to a copy of the directive text provided by Quivey, taken from the Secretary of State’s Election Manual: “Multi-precinct voting locations increase the efficiency by which voters check in, reduce the possibility of voter confusion, including questions around ‘wrong precinct, right polling location’ and provisional ballots, and adapt easily to an e-poll book environment.”
“This is a directive from the Secretary of State,” Quivey said. “How I describe a directive, and how Penny describes it, it is a directive: we have no choice… It’s not an advisory.”
Quivey said she and Brooks have been “very offended” by the use of the term “voter suppression” in regards to the polling place changes.
“We don’t think we’ve ever done anything to suppress voting,” Quivey said. “This is a handful of people that… have had the convenience of being able to walk to their polling location. What about all of the people that don’t have the convenience of walking to the polling location?”
When Jacksonville and Trimble village precincts were moved to multi-precinct polling locations several years ago, many voters who once walked to their single-precinct locations could not do so anymore.
“Nelsonville is not the only place,” Quivey said. “… To say that is voter suppression; I’m sorry, we don’t believe that it is.”
C&J Tax Services is roughly two minutes away from the Wesleyan Church, by car, Quivey said – just over one mile away. The C&J building is also just over a mile away from the library, about a five-minute drive.
“Not everybody has the privilege to walk, but we have to treat everybody the same,” Quivey said. “…We wish these people could continue to walk, but we see a bigger picture.”
The C&J space is a “huge” space, Quivey said. “We will have everybody under one roof, great parking, ADA (compliant).”
Though both of the previous locations in Nelsonville were also ADA compliant, Quivey said the C&J space is even more accessible. “We in no way want to put a negative reflection on either one of those locations, but the problem is we found a better one,” she said.
“...We believe everyone does have a right to their opinion and to share that opinion,” Quivey said, “but... you cannot make it convenient for every voter in (any) location,” she said.
As for the locations moved to Alexander High School, the school building is close to the center of the L-shaped area containing the four precincts that were moved there (based on a precinct map Quivey presented to this reporter).
While the Athens County BOE has been consolidating single-precinct locations over the course of several years, Quivey and Brooks said the response to the recent changes has been unique.
“We have never had the feedback as we have from Nelsonville on this, when we’ve moved other locations,” Quivey said.
One argument made by opponents of the changes is that Nelsonville lacks public transportation, making it difficult for those without cars to access the new polling locations. Brooks noted that “people out in the county” lack access to public transportation, as well, not just in the city of Nelsonville.
Quivey and Brooks added that they each live in precincts that had their polling locations moved. Brooks admitted that her own husband was displeased with the move of their polling location.
“We are ordinary people, we have opinions (too),” Quivey said. “...But as professionals and as the director and deputy director, we have to put our personal feelings aside and look at what we feel is best to take care of the voters for the whole district.”
Quivey and Brooks also said they do not believe the changes will negatively impact voter turnout.
According to figures provided by Brooks, voter turnout for Bern Township did not change significantly after a single-precinct location within the township was relocated in 2009 to Amesville Elementary School, outside of the township. In 2007 before that change, roughly 37.4 percent of registered voters in the Bern Township precinct voted. In 2009, just after the polling location had been moved, about 42.7 percent of registered voters voted at the new location. By 2017, that percentage had dropped to 30.6 percent in an off-year election.
“Penny and I have went back and looked at percentages in other elections like this, after we’ve moved polling locations,” Quivey said. “…There’s nothing there that tells us people quit voting.”