Poll Position

Published 11:04 pm Saturday, January 24, 2009

It is a ritual she has done many times before, over and over again. Rome Township resident Marsha Imhoff said, on election day, even in primaries, she and many of her neighbors know that to cast their ballot they have to stand in line — sometimes a long line.

“I have the advantage that I own a small business and I can set my own hours but I have seen people who had to leave because they had to go to work or they were late picking their children up from daycare,” she said. “There are too many people in that Labelle (2 precinct). We’re at a huge disadvantage.”

This year, Imhoff skipped the lines by voting absentee ahead of time but many of her neighbors and family members were standing in that line in November.

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One local government leader agrees part of the problem in some areas on election day 2008 was not just the scores of people voting, but the inequity between precincts.

Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens told the Lawrence County Board of Elections Thursday afternoon he would like to see that entity redraw boundaries to even out the number of voters at each precinct and in the process, even cut expenses — something Lawrence County desperately needs to do.

Stephens offered a plan to make it happen.

“Someone’s time in one precinct is as precious as someone’s time in another,” Stephens said.

Stephens was speaking as a concerned citizen but in his quest to cut costs and make elections fair, he is likely to have company.

Fellow commissioner Les Boggs has said he is in favor of the idea.

“I am in full support of looking at that, as a citizen,” Boggs said.

In the end, though, whether or not to redistrict is a decision that will be made solely by the four-member board of elections. Board members agreed to study the idea.

However, all but one, Carl Lilly, seemed hesitant to commit to it.

“It really is a big undertaking and it is time consuming,” board chairman Karen Matney Simmons said. “We certainly will look at this and see what is workable.”

The statistics

Lawrence County has approximately 44,012 registered voters. The average number of voters in each precinct is 524.

As some areas of the county gain population, others lose, the population shifts and precincts that once handled several hundred or even a thousand voters years ago now see only a few hundred come through their door on election day.

Those precinct boundaries have apparently not changed with the times.

Elizabeth 2 precinct has 1,008 registered voters while neighboring Elizabeth 3 has only 401.

Labelle 2 has 1,199 registered voters while Labelle 5 has only 500.

Chesapeake A has 440 voters while neighboring Chesy B has 275 registered voters.

There are 25 precincts in the city of Ironton and all but one, Ironton 1F, have less than 500 registered voters. Six have less than 260 registered voters.

Aid 1 has 464 voters while neighboring Aid 2 has less than 200.

The idea

Stephens wants to whittle Lawrence County’s 84 precincts by 33 percent. His plan would increase the number of registered voters to an average of 786 per precinct.

Not all precincts would be affected and some precincts in very rural areas would remain as they are now in spite of the sparse population and few registered voters.

A case in point is Washington Township, which has only 182 registered voters.

Under Stephens’ proposal, that precinct would remain open to prevent residents in that area from having to drive an extreme distance to get to the polls.

Ironton’s 25 precincts would be combined into 10 precincts with 815 or 816 registered voters in each. This would require fewer polling places and, hence fewer poll workers that are often hard to find.

“This could cut the cost of election workers by a third,” Stephens said.

Stephens said one concerned citizen suggested to him that all Rome precincts use Fairland High School to vote.

“Everything is in one place and it has a really big parking lot,” he said.

Laws

State law allows boards of elections some latitude in deciding how many precincts to have and how many voters to put in one precinct, but the maximum number of voters by law is 1,400.

Variances can be given in some circumstances. The boundaries for precincts, according to state law, should be “geographical units used by the United States department of commerce, bureau of the census, in reporting the decennial census of Ohio” — in other words, streets, creeks and so forth.

Stephens said in some cases, redrawing those boundaries could be as simple as moving the precinct boundary from one street to the next.

The money

Stephens pointed out that Lawrence County paid $121,370 for extra election workers last year. That equates to $722 per precinct per election.

If the precincts were consolidated to 56, the county would save $40,000 in election years with a primary and half that much in each year without a primary.

Municipalities could save money, too. Stephens figured the city of Ironton could save as much as $11,000 for its elections.

The politics

Imhoff said the scarcity of precincts in Rome means people on the eastern end of the county have less of a voice on political party and county governmental affairs. This is because each precinct elects a central committee person who represents that precinct at the county party level.

It is these committee people who, for instance, decide who sits on the board of elections.

The concerns

While the board did not reject the idea outright, it also did not get approval.

“It takes a lot of study on this,” board of elections member Bob Griffith said. “We may move one family and cause them to have to drive five miles.”

Carl Lilly countered that while some families may be inconvenienced by redrawing those boundaries, others are inconvenienced as things stand now.

“One person’s convenience could be another person’s inconvenience,” Lilly said.

Matney Simmons suggested early voting may be the key to reducing those lines at the polls.

“Maybe we could do both,” Stephens replied.

Imhoff said she has not seen Stephens’ plan and can’t comment on it, but she hopes the board of elections will do something to make voting less of a headache and more equal for all voters regardless of where they live.

“It’s all about having a voice,” she said.