New voting locations pitch in for Ohio’s unexpected August election

By: - August 7, 2023 5:00 am

WESTERVILLE, Ohio — AUGUST 03: The Westerville Free Will Baptist Church which will be a new voting location for the August 8 special election, August 3, 2023, at the Westerville Free Will Baptist Church in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

On Tuesday, Ohioans head to the polls to vote on whether future constitutional amendments should face a heightened threshold for passage. But for some, the typical election day routine will look a tad different.

To say Tuesday’s special election was unexpected is an understatement. Lawmakers scrapped such elections at the end of last year and followed a last-minute, legally dubious course to add the current one to the calendar. In 4-3 decision in June, the Ohio Supreme Court allowed the election to go forward.

That sent county elections officials scrambling to ensure polling locations were available. In several cases, those spaces were already reserved. In Franklin County, for instance, 27 voting locations were already taken. Board of elections spokesman Aaron Sellers explained, “we will be moving them temporarily to a location that’s a close location to where they would normally vote.”

“That’s roughly about 7% of the total electorate in the county,” he added.

Still, that amounts to more than 66,000 voters around the county. The board sent notices in the mail for anyone headed to a new location. In Franklin County you can double check your polling place here. The Secretary of State maintains a page for tracking down voting locations in all 88 counties as well.

Gahanna branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. (photo by NBBJ courtesy of the library)

The library

One of the voting locations picking up the slack is the Gahanna branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Another four library branches will host voters this election, but Gahanna is the only first-timer.

“But this is a brand-new building,” branch manager Nate Oliver chuckled. “(We’ve) been open five months.”

The new building is bright and airy with floor to ceiling windows covering most of the façade. Importantly, they’ve also got a lot of parking and bus stops nearby. Oliver explained they’ll set up voting machines in two of their large meeting rooms. When I arrived he’d already pushed back the accordion walls between them.

Columbus Metropolitan Library Gahanna branch manager Nate Oliver. (Photo by Nick Evans for Ohio Capital Journal)

“In the November election, we’re planning to open up that one,” he said, pointing to another accordion wall, “and then it’s going to be that much bigger.”

The previous Gahanna branch was a polling location for many years, Oliver said, but at some point it switched to a different location. The Gahanna library will be taking the place of two typical voting locations — Gahanna City Hall and Gahanna Senior Center. Between the two, they’ll be serving voters from three precincts.

Oliver didn’t recall getting any indication of how many voters they should expect, but he said they’d seen big crowds when they first opened, and events like story times regularly bring out more than a hundred people at a time.

As for why they volunteered, Oliver said, “modern public libraries are community centers, really.”

“We’re open to all, we are nonpartisan, so we’re a neutral place for this type of activity,” he went on. “We’re a civic institution, and this is part of, you know, democracy and being a citizen. So, I feel like it’s a perfect match.”

The church

In Westerville, Pastor Paul Etterling opened the doors to his church to host Tuesday’s election. The Westerville Free Will Baptist Church formerly served as a polling place. But that was when the church was in a different building across town, and the voters it served were from Delaware County.

Etterling said that previous experience and their location in a residential area drew a board official to the church.

“It’s part of the precinct and College Avenue is high traffic,” Etterling said, “So he’s like, we think this would be a perfect place — ton of parking, handicapped accessible, it’s all one level. It just was really appealing to them that that we would be able to serve.”

WESTERVILLE, Ohio — AUGUST 03: Paul Etterling, lead pastor of the Westerville Free Will Baptist Church which will be a new voting location for the August 8 special election, August 3, 2023, at the Westerville Free Will Baptist Church in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Etterling’s church is pinch-hitting for Westerville Christian Church, and they’ll be serving three precincts. Poll workers will set up the voting machines in the sanctuary. Hallways surround the space, Etterling described, so setting up a sort of assembly line shouldn’t be difficult.

“It could be anywhere from just a few 100 up to a few 1000,” he said of their expected turnout. “Of course, early voting, changes that.”

Early vote figures for Tuesday’s special election have been jaw-dropping in comparison to recent similar elections. Even before the final weekend of early voting began, more than a half a million Ohioans had voted in person or returned an absentee ballot.

For context, that’s more than double the entire early vote in last May’s primary election.

Etterling said the issue has struck a chord in the community, and they wanted to do what they could to participate.

“Number one, being a church, we feel like we’re called to serve people, and specifically as a local church to serve our community,” he said, “and so this gives us an opportunity to serve in a way that benefits our community.”

“And then as a church,” he added “we also believe that God has blessed us to be a part of the Republic, to be able to cast our vote, and so we wanted to help encourage that.”

Etterling said with any election he works to keep his parishioners informed and to address the question they’ll consider “biblically.” But he explained Issue 1, “doesn’t have any direct morality issues involved with it that we would be concerned about as a church. So we just do our best to give them resources.”

When the church signed on to serve as a polling location, they signed on for the remainder of the year, including the general election in November.

“And as far as we’re concerned,” Etterling said “unless we hit a road bump that just says you can’t do this logistically, we’re ready to sign a contract for 2024.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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