Many people still face barriers while casting their ballot, and Athens is no exception.
July 5, Rose Butcher received a postcard in the mail from the Athens County Board of Elections indicating her polling location had been changed.
Rose Butcher is a resident of Rome Township. Before the Aug. 8 election, her polling location had been the Federal Hocking Middle School, located at 8461 state Route 144, Stewart, OH, 45778. Her notice indicated that her voting location, along with all residents of Carthage and Rome Township, had been changed to the Carthage Township Volunteer Fire Department, located at 21200 Holly Lane Guysville, OH, 45735.
Cole Patterson | Director of Multimedia
The change came as a shock to Rose Butcher, as she was never given an explanation as to why the polling location was changed. She said she had talked with other Rome Township community members who had similar concerns.
She was never informed of any problems or issues indicating that a change was necessary, just a simple postcard in the mail a month before election day.
“It makes you think, ‘Why?’” Rose Butcher said. “Do they just do this because they don’t want you to vote?”
Rose Butcher voted early at the polling location on Court Street, so she did not have to find her new polling location for herself. However, when she was taking someone else to the fire department to vote, she realized there was a problem with the directions.
“It makes you think, ‘Why?’ Do they just do this because they don’t want you to vote?” -Rose Butcher
She pulled out her phone and searched “Carthage Township Volunteer Fire Department” in Google Maps, but nothing came up.
Nothing was adding up to Rose Butcher; she said she thought it had to be a mistake.
However, Rome Township residents were not alone in their struggles. Nancy Pierce, a resident of Carthage Township, affirmed that the road to the fire department does not easily catch people's attention.
“It’s a small road I barely see off the highway,” Pierce said. “But it’s marked, and I found it when I needed to.”
Beau Murphree, another resident of Rome Township, said one of the reasons he was deterred from voting in this special election was due to the change in his voting location.
Murphree said for as long as he can remember this was the first time the location was changed from Federal Hocking Middle School.
Similar to Rose Butcher, Murphree wanted to discover where he could find his new polling location. After driving along U.S. Route 50, he came across the path to the fire department, but he was reluctant to continue.
To get to the fire department, you need to drive across the highway, which can be difficult for those of older age, he said.
David Butcher, Rose’s husband, is also a resident of Rome Township. He added that Rome Township is home to a variety of people with varying social classes and races.
“There are very diverse groups of people in this area, maybe one of the most diverse in Athens County,” David Butcher said. “It is a very underserved community, and it has been for a long time.”
Many people experienced difficulty and confusion when trying to find the fire department online, but David Butcher questioned how those without the internet would be able to find the new polling location. Even some who had directions from the internet were unable to find the fire department; David Butcher said it would be even harder for those without the internet to search for directions.
“To think everyone has the internet in my community is not right,” David Butcher said.
Athens Board of Election Board Member Aundrea Carpenter-Colvin said other polling locations were also temporarily, and in some cases permanently, moved due to unavailability, parking and traffic lot concerns and misuse of polling equipment and capacity.
However, Carpenter-Colvin said the Board of Elections received the most calls with questions about the new Rome and Carthage Township polling site.
There must be yearly inspections on voting sites to ensure the polling locations meet the Americans with Disabilities, or ADA, Act of 1990 law. During the inspection of Federal Hocking Middle School for the Aug. 8 election, it was determined that the school did not meet the guidelines, Carpenter-Colvin said.
Cole Patterson | Director of Multimedia
One of the major issues was a 2% cross slope which makes it difficult for people in wheelchairs to easily enter and exit the building. Another key issue was parking compliance; all parking spaces, including handicapped spots, were not wide enough, Carpenter-Colvin said.
She contacted the middle school about moving the polling to a different area in the building, but the school could not meet the requested accommodations.
Carpenter-Colvin spoke with school board members, Rome Township trustees and the Federal Valley Resource Center to find the next best location for the residents of Rome and Carthage Township.
The board had considered Carthage’s Volunteer Fire Department in the past – four years ago – but at the time the site did not meet ADA regulations. Since then, the facility has made renovations and improvements to achieve ADA compliance.
When determining where to move the polling location for the Aug. 8 election, the fire department was brought into question. An accessibility coordinator reevaluated the facility and said it met ADA guidelines with 100% compliance.
Carpenter-Colvin said the Board of Elections board members voted Wednesday, June 21, to affirm the new polling location. She said announcements were made on Thursday, June 22. Posts about the change were made on Facebook and the homepage of the Athens County Board of Elections website, and postcards were also sent.
The Athens City Commission on Disabilities is a committee whose purpose is to provide a means for the concerns of people with disabilities. Each year the ADA evaluates polling locations based on the committee’s guidelines to ensure all voters are given the same equitable experience while voting.
Dianne Bouvier, vice chair of the committee, and Allyson Hughes, secretary of the committee, were not responsible for determining that the precinct location in Rome and Carthage Township did not meet ADA’s guidelines, but they did speak about their thoughts and concerns with the unexplained polling location change.
Hughes said it is a “huge red flag” that voters were only notified within one month before the election and that Google and Apple Maps were giving different locations and directions.
“For those with intellectual differences, this can be confusing,” Bouvier said. “It’s confusing and unclear when different websites are showing different locations for voting.”
Additionally, some browsers do not designate Carthage Township Volunteer Fire Department as a verified organization, stating, “Some users are reporting that this business does not exist.”
“It’s confusing and unclear when different websites are showing different locations for voting.” -Dianne Bouvier
However, with the slope of the sidewalk entrance at Federal Hocking Middle School being at 2%, it does prove to be a challenging barrier for those with physical disabilities, so a change needed to be made, Bouvier said.
“Having a 2% cross slope is scary for a person in a wheelchair,” Bouvier said.
Bouvier said this is not the first time Athens County has experienced confusing voting issues. She acknowledged that voting is better than it has been in previous years, but she also has experienced confusion with her polling location.
“It seems like they’re creating more barriers, and the perception is that they are making it harder to vote,” Bouvier said.
When Bouvier and Hughes found out that Carthage’s Volunteer Fire Department was given a 100% ADA-compliant score, they were surprised. They decided to visit the location to see for themselves.
The women set off to the fire department, and to their surprise, they were impressed by the voting location, in terms of access, Bouvier said.
Though they did not give the fire department an official score when they visited, Bouvier acknowledged it had a van-accessible parking space, a level concrete sidewalk to the entrance and the door has a button actuator and signage.
Although they did not have the opportunity to go inside the building, they could see through the windows that it could easily be an accessible place to vote with clear pathways.
Cole Patterson | Director of Multimedia
“If they went from a space with a 2% cross slope to this one; they made a good decision,” Bouvier wrote in an email. “Of course, the main issue would then be whether or not people knew about the location change in time.”
Nonetheless, Bouvier and Hughes acknowledged that the changing of the polling location created confusion for multiple people, and though they determined – from an unofficial observation – that the fire department was an equitable site for all voters, they believed there were still flaws in communication.
“A barrier is a barrier, even if it’s small, it shouldn’t happen,” Hughes said.
On Aug. 8, a high number of registered voters cast their ballots across Ohio either in support or dissent for Issue 1.
A ‘yes’ vote on Ohio’s special ballot was in favor of increasing the number of votes required to pass a voter-initiated amendment from 50% to 60%; if passed, it would have also required initiative petitions proposing an amendment for the ballot to be signed by 5% of the electors in each of Ohio’s 88 counties, as opposed to the state’s present 44.
Ultimately, the majority of Ohio voted ‘no’ in this special election; with 1,744,094 people voting ‘no’ and 1,315,346 voting ‘yes,’ according to NPR.
The number of registered voters in Athens who voted ‘no’ was 9,743 and 4,043 voted ‘yes,’ according to the Athens County Board of Elections.
In last year's Nov. 8 election, Rome Township had 826 registered voters with 463 cast ballots – a 56.05% voter turnout. In the Aug. 8 special election, there were 793 registered voters with 314 total ballots cast – a 39.6% voter turnout.
Carthage Township saw a similar trend. In last year’s Nov. 8 election, there were 1,009 registered voters in Carthage Township with 576 cast ballots – a 57.09% voter turnout. On Aug. 8, there were 977 registered voters with 402 ballots cast – a 41.15% voter turnout.
Compared to last year’s general election, there was a 15%-16% decrease in voter turnout in both townships for the Aug. 8 election. Though the decrease is significant, the comparison is made between a general election and a special election, so some decline may be expected.
Will the location change again?
Carpenter-Colvin said the board is looking into finding a precinct closer to Rome Township for those residents. However, she does not anticipate the change happening anytime soon.
She advised people to continue to keep an open mind about the situation. She said there is always a possibility for the site to go back to Federal Hocking Middle School.
Currently, the Federal Valley Resource Center received a grant to help fund its work toward ADA compliance to – potentially – become a polling location.
Though she struggled with the location change as a Carthage resident, Pierce also said she does not believe there was any malice behind the decision.
“I have tremendous confidence in the Board of Elections,” Pierce said. “I know how well they know the law and how careful they are with it. My guess is I’d be very surprised if any (voting barriers are) happening in Athens.”
There is not a direct answer as to whether Rome and Carthage Townships’ polling location will once again be Federal Hocking Middle School, but the Athens County Board of Elections website states that the voting location for those areas has been permanently moved.
During general election day, which is always held on the first Tuesday in November, the weather can be noncooperative – it can be cold, snowing or raining – and Rose Butcher mentioned how it could deter people from wanting to vote at the fire department.
“I feel the nightmare isn’t over yet,” David Butcher said.