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The headlines in this election season have been dominated by concerns about high-tech threats to the voting process, but in one Ohio county there is an argument brewing over something far less complex but arguably just as important: parking for voters.
Summit County, (Akron) OH’s election board is currently trying to resolve what has become a partisan dispute over how to accommodate early voters at a county building. The Akron Beacon-Journal has more:
Summit County election officials took the partisan fight over early voting to the parking lot Tuesday.
Republican officials challenged a proposal made by Democratic chair Bill Rich at the agency’s public meeting. Rich wants staff at the Grant Street facility to give up their parking spaces to voters who begin in-person early voting on Oct. 12.
In 2012, several voters who parked at nearby apartments had their cars towed.
Paula Sauter, the chief Democratic administrator, said that Democrat employees — without complaining — have been instructed to park elsewhere in the past two federal elections. Only a few Republican employees have voluntarily done so, Republicans said.
Rich’s proposal would make the off-site parking mandatory for anyone without a disability.
The board of elections has a combined 195 parking spots with the purchase this year of an adjacent building being remodeled to facilitate early voting. At peak capacity, state election officials have recommended adding 172 part-time employees to a staff of 32 in order to process mail-in ballots and walk-in voters, Sauter said. Plus, there will be up to 17 rental trucks, four board vehicles and one or two police cruisers on the lot — leaving no spaces for the public.
One key point of contention between the parties is how to handle satellite parking – especially given concerns about safety in the neighborhood:
For off-site employee parking within walking distance, Sauter lined up 75 spots at the Akron Innovation Campus, 16 at a credit union and 20 at a neighborhood development center, along with other spaces. But it’s the 30 spaces at the Greenleaf Family Center on Grant Street that had Republican board member Alex Arshinkoff strongly opposing the plan.
To get to these spots employees would have to walk by Bottoms Up, a strip club also on Grant Street, two blocks south.
“There’s nothing going on for safety,” Arshinkoff said, noting that strip club patrons might be in the “wrong state of mind” when employees walk to their cars along the sidewalk across the street.
“Voters are people, too,” said Rich, making the case during the heated exchange that “we — the board and the employees — are here to serve the public, not the other way around.”
“I understand. But our employees are people, too,” Arshinkoff responded. And we can’t send our employees to a place — that without a gun — you shouldn’t be walking.”
Republican director Joe Masich referenced 1,412 alleged crimes reported in a 1-mile radius since January, including 25 rapes, 234 acts of vandalism, 421 thefts and 201 assaults.
One potential solution is to provide a shuttle – but again, the two sides don’t see eye-to-eye on who should ride it:
After consulting a county prosecutor about whether the board might get sued if an employee is injured or assaulted after being made to walk from off-site parking, Democrats and Republicans agreed that shuttle transportation would be ideal. They then argued over whether voters or employees should ride the shuttle.
Rich said it would be easier to explain the shuttle service to employees, that voters come first and that the public will not be at the early voting site all day like employees.
Arshinkoff suggested that the University of Akron might provide a single, larger parking area on campus and an Akron Metro bus could transport employees, for free. He said enrollment is down at UA, so there should be spots. And Metro buses are sometimes empty anyway, from what he’s seen.
There is some uncertainty about whether additional parking is even needed, given the push for more mailed ballots in Ohio:
The two sides then argued over turnout and whether more spaces are even needed.
Republican board member Bryan Williams, who made the motion earlier this year to buy the building next door from McDonald’s, said the new early voting facility will speed up the walk-through voting process. In the last presidential election, the board of elections lobby could only handle three voters at a time.
The board of elections already has doubled parking, from 95 to 195, Williams noted. And the secretary of state mailed out absentee ballot applications to many voters, who can send them in from home and would not need to clog up the early voting site.
State officials reported Monday that absentee ballot requests are up 8 percent.
Despite the disagreement, however, the board seems committed to finding a solution:
With the next elections board meeting scheduled after early voting begins, the two parties agreed to convene a special meeting Tuesday after staff find a single, large parking area to house all employee vehicles and a shuttle to get them there, and research what liability the board would assume if employees or their cars are harmed in the effort to accommodate voters.
As Election Day approaches I would expect these kinds of concerns and disputes, about issues that potentially affect the everyday experience of voters, to proliferate. There are, to be sure, new worries in the field of election administration, but the old worries – including “Can voters find their the polling place?” “Is it convenient and accessible?” “Can they park?” – remain. What’s more, those issues can be just as difficult as more technical ones, given budgetary constraints and/or shortages of physical space in some communities for parking or other activities.
Here’s hoping the Summit County board can find a compromise that works for voters and employees alike … stay tuned!