Polling place closures: Has Hamilton County made it harder for poor people to vote?

Low-income areas lost 64 voting sites since 2006

CINCINNATI - When voters headed to the polls for Ohio’s May 6 primary, they cast ballots at 373 voting locations in 575 precincts. Both numbers are down sharply from 2006, when there were 526 voting locations in 880 precincts.

Hamilton County Board of Elections Chairman Tim Burke said several factors caused the decline, including pressure from Hamilton County to cut costs, population changes in the inner city and guidance from state officials “to make the number of voters in each precinct more consistent.”

That means precincts were consolidated all over the county, but the trend since 2006 shows low-income neighborhoods bore the brunt of the closures. In fact, a WCPO analysis shows 42 percent of the 153 polling places eliminated since 2006 were in census tracts with average incomes of less than $35,000.

WCPO analyzed polling place addresses in 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2014. The lowest-income census tracts have 85 voting locations this year, down 43 percent from 2006. Census tracts with incomes above $75,000 have 82 locations, down 13.7 percent from eight years ago.

The difference is even more striking since 2010. High-income census tracts gained seven voting locations in the last four years, while the lowest-income tracts lost 46, a decline of 35 percent.

“They’ve made it harder for poor people to vote,” said State Sen. Eric Kearney, a Democrat who represents Ohio’s 9th District. “That’s great statistical support for what people like me have been talking about for a while. It seems like systematically, they’re disadvantaging certain people and making it tougher to vote.”

Kearney said he’s heard from constituents “at least a hundred times” that polling place closures have made it harder for them to vote.

WCPO's interactive chart shows there were 14 census tracts in Hamilton County that had no voting locations in 2006. This year, the number has increased to more than 40 and a dozen of those are in census tracts with an average income below $35,000.

Click the map below to filter the chart to see how polling locations have changed in neighborhoods with different income levels.

Cincinnati Councilman Chris Seelbach said closures in low-income neighborhoods have a bigger impact on voters.

“We should be doing everything necessary to make it easiest for the most people to vote,” Seelbach. “People who don’t have vehicles already have a hard time getting to polling places. Making it harder for those people just seems even more of an insult to our democracy.”

Burke agreed that it’s harder for Ohioans to cast ballots this year, but he doesn’t think the closure of polling places is a factor. Instead, he blames new restrictions on absentee balloting, which prevented the county from mailing early-voting applications to voters.

‘Four years ago, we had 40,000 who had already voted (in the May, 2010 primary). This year, we’re at just over 7,000,”said Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

A Republican member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections said neither the consolidation of precincts nor this year’s changes to early voting rules had any impact on access to voters.

“I would argue that it’s never been easier to vote in Ohio and in Hamilton County,” said Chip Gerhardt, president and founder of Government Strategies Group LLC, a Downtown-based lobbying firm.

Gerhardt said the county has been consolidating precincts since 2003, when state law mandated that precinct boundaries should match “geographical units” established by the U.S. Census Bureau. The consolidation started outside the city of Cincinnati and moved into the inner city after 2006. So, he’s not surprised that more poll locations closed in low-income neighborhoods in recent years. But Gerhardt argues any inconvenience caused by poll closures has been more than addressed by the Ohio’s rules on early voting. 

“If that voter truly wants to vote, they can do it early through an absentee ballot. Every single adult in Hamilton County if they choose can vote from the convenience of their own home,” Gerhardt said. “There is no excuse, not one, for a person not to vote if they want to.”

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