The move of the Marion County Elections Office next year – from its location on South Commercial to the Courthouse Square Complex in central Salem – has some voters’ rights advocates concerned that residents could find it more difficult to receive election services. But county officials maintain that the benefits of the move are crucial to the county.
The Elections Office has been located at 4263 Commercial Street SE since 1994, at a lease of $200,000/year. John Lattimer, CEO of Marion County, calls it “very expensive and out of the way.” He describes the upcoming move “a cost, efficiency and taxpayer savings decision.”
Plans have all Marion County Clerk operations being consolidated into one address when the Courthouse Complex reopens in May 2014. Lattimer says the decision to move Elections was made by the Board of County Commissioners at his recommendation, as part of an effort to save the county money.
However, budget concerns might be solved other ways, say voting rights advocates like retired attorney Tina Calos of Salem, while the Courthouse Square location potentially poses “enormous access challenges” for voters.
The present location has 100 parking spaces and a one-story ground floor, compared to street stalls in the already-congested streets downtown. The new office will be on the second floor, requiring stairs or elevator.
Frustration and a crush of citizens may be inevitable. While officials in favor of the move suggest additional drop boxes be installed for ballots, this wouldn’t solve the needs of hundreds of voters who must come to the counter year-round. Calos notes, “A huge group have to come in to get replacement ballots, because they moved or their signature changed… They have to go in person, and I do see significant problems for them.”
There will be especially grim hassles on elections days, when those who want to drop off ballots in person often bring well over 3,000 inside. Last November Elections also issued 645 new ballots to walk-ins that same day. Jan Williamson, former Marion County GOP Chairman, says, “Congestion-wise, moving elections downtown sounds like ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire.’”
Al Davidson, Marion County Clerk from 1984-2004, calls relocating to Courthouse Square “a horrible mistake.” He describes the South Commercial facility as cramped and “barely adequate” and adds, “All the logistical problems of that place would be greatly amplified downtown.”
Courthouse Square provides Elections with less than 300 square feet additional room – and no room to expand.
Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess’ says his priority is voter accessibility. “People have a more joyful experience, when they can get in, do their business and get out easily.” He admits, “I’m concerned that [Courthouse Square] may be more challenging for my customers.”
Burgess has considered the industrial nature of his work as it relates to downtown. “An election facility is more like a manufacturing plant than a Class-A office,” he says, “it’s… an industrial assembly and processing operation. We sometimes have more than 400 boxes of envelopes and inserts delivered.”
Then, there is the temporary staff of 30 to assemble ballot packets, and, at other times, 80 – 100 to process returned ballots. The special requirements of the office may be inconsistent, Salem CityWatch’s Richard Reid suggests, with a downtown office located on a second floor, whose underground parking structure is not tall enough to allow trucks and which doesn’t offer parking for customers – much less a fluctuating workforce.
Meanwhile, 2014 approaches and the lease has already been cancelled for the South Commercial location. Because voter access and election services are of paramount importance in a democracy, some wonder if there might be a new site for Elections that is superior to Courthouse Square and also cost-efficient for the county.
Burgess is willing to entertain the idea. “Maybe it would be a good idea to look for a more suitable place where we could serve our customers better.”