CINCINNATI — A handful of local leaders took public transportation to "work" on Friday in order to drive home a point about the early voting challenges faced by tens of thousands of Hamilton County residents.
State Senator Eric Kearney (D-Cincinnati) was joined by State Senator Nina Turner (D-Cleveland), local officials and activists on the “Bus Ride for Ballot Access” initiative.
The group accompanied Cincinnati-area transit riders on a Metro bus to the future site of the Hamilton County Board of Elections in the Mount Airy neighborhood. They departed from Walnut Hills, where roughly 40 percent of the residents rely on public transportation to get around, according to Kearney's office.
For one way travel, the journey took more than hour and a half and involved one bus transfer and a 15-minute walk, according to Cincinnati councilwoman Yvette Simpson who took part in the event. It cost $2.25 to get there.
"One-way trip from Walnut Hills to Mt. Airy BOE. Time: 1 hr 35 min. on a beautiful day w/no significant bus delays. Cost: $2.25," Simpson tweeted.
It's less than 10 miles from Walnut Hills to Mount Airy.
Kearney said the length and cost of the bus ride he took on Friday shows how "restricted" voting opportunities are in Hamilton County, where about 42,000 households do not have access to a personal vehicle.
"This bus ride showed how access to early voting will be restricted when the Hamilton County Board of Elections leaves downtown,” he said. “With tens of thousands of households in the county having no access to a vehicle, elected officials have an obligation to ensure equitable access to the early voting site."
On Jan. 27, Secretary of State Jon A. Husted broke a tie vote of the Hamilton County Board of Elections in favor of moving its office from its downtown Cincinnati location to the more suburban Mount Airy setting following the 2016 presidential election.
Hamilton County officials want the Mount Airy facility primarily for a new, expanded regional crime lab.
It would cost $56 million to build a new crime lab, but only about $25 million to renovate part of the hospital for that purpose, county officials said.
However, in allowing the move, Kearney added, the secretary charged board members to increase access to both the new and existing board locations.
“Between now and 2017, I direct the members of the Hamilton County Board of Elections (either current or future) to work together to either find bipartisan agreement on improving early voting services at the Mount Airy site or jointly working out an alternative early voting location that works for all of Hamilton County,” Husted wrote in a letter to the board.
Currently, the nearest bus station is nearly half a mile from the new location, something Turner believes "demonstrates how difficult it is for many Cincinnatians and many Ohioans to get to the polls."
“People who don’t have cars, moms and dads balancing work and family time, seniors, and Ohioans with disabilities should not have to jump through hoops to cast a ballot. From getting to a polling location to climbing the stairs, this state must identify barriers to ballot access, and help voters overcome them.”
Simpson and advocates pushing for an early voting site in downtown Cincinnati are still in conversations with the county and there's no reason the move can't take place well ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Mayor John Cranley and State Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Bond Hill) have offered two alternatives to keep some or all of the Board of Elections’ operations in downtown Cincinnati. Both involve offering city-owned property for a nominal $1 fee.
While the focus of Friday's event was drawing attention to the voting rights issues, Simpson took notice of the fact many people on social media saw her updates as a sign that city and county officials also need to address the availability of reliable public transportation.
"Certainly, today's focus was on early voting and the rights of voters, but it seems like people on social media decided to attach public transportation issues to it," said the University of Cincinnati law school grad. "I certainly think the county needs to provide its citizens with robust transportation options, that's something I support."
One Twitter user, identifying himself as Taylor Belcher, wrote that, "@yvette4council speaks not only to voter rights and polling locations but state of our public transit."
Friday's political bus ride was an effort to reinforce their push for change. Organizers picked Walnut Hills instead of places like Lockland that are farther away to show how the change to the early voting location affects even people who live relatively close to Mount Airy.
"We wanted to show that this is a real issue for many people in the county.
We picked Walnut Hills and took a route many people take every day to work to show the challenges people face getting to this area," said Simpson who also said the situation highlights the limited public transportation options for people around the county.
Simpson later posted a rhetorical challenge to members of the Board of Elections, asking them to walk (or ride) a mile in the shoes of many every day residents of Hamilton County.
"I challenge ANYONE, especially BOE Board and SOS Husted to take that trip & not say it’s unnecessarily burdensome on voters. #voterrrights"
Officials from the Board of Elections were not available for comment on the idea of moving the early voting site back to a downtown location.