Electoral Board Proposes Combining Precincts

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Voters line up in the Ruffner Gym during a recent election.
Voters line up in the Ruffner Gym during a recent election.

by Valerie Garner

Dwindling poll workers, lack of available locations, cost savings and several council members’ interest spurred Roanoke City’s Electoral Board to set out a plan to reduce/combine voting precincts throughout the city, said Electoral Board member and attorney Melvin Williams in a phone call. They set out to do just that with new census numbers from 2010.

According to Williams, City Attorney Bill Hackworth contacted the board asking them to prepare to talk to council in a work session about the precincts. Williams wanted to wait until after the November elections but Hackworth wanted to start now because the process would be lengthy.

“That resulted in this initial proposal … there were obvious precincts they could combine,” said Williams. Hackworth sent city council an email with the legalities of it all. That resulted in Williams and Registrar Lavern Grigsby showing up at Monday’s work session. They waited for three hours.

The conversation Monday turned into a “process only discussion,” said Williams. After an hour-long back and forth, he said “they decided that within 60 days the Electoral Board is going to give council a proposed precinct realignment/combination.

Williams said council wants to create something like a “task force” made up of constituencies to include the SCLC, NAACP, members of the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities and neighborhood groups. Public hearings will be held and the proposal will go before council for adoption and approval by the Department Of Justice.

A firm timeline has not been set. Williams speculated that it could be completed by the November 2012 elections. “It could become a hotly contested issue,” according to several council members’ comments Williams said. “It probably will change but I’m not sure how right now – it might even add some others to combine or realign,” he said.

Williams said he got the impression from council’s questioning that Hackworth didn’t forward their recommendations to council for Monday’s work session.

In the August 9 email to City Attorney Bill Hackworth, Williams wrote, “These proposed changes would eliminate 6 precincts. Each precinct is staffed by a minimum of 5 officers of elections, and after accounting for additional staffing at the combined, larger precincts, still results in a savings of approximately 20 officers of election. The Electoral Board passed these proposed realignments unanimously, and Registrar Grigsby fully supports and endorses the proposed realignments.”

Council member Bill Bestpitch had mentioned reducing precincts at a council meeting a year ago during a vote to move three precincts. The “bail out” issue was brought up though not on the table at the time. The three precincts were no longer available and it was a struggle to find suitable handicap accessible locations that were also in close proximity to the lost precincts.

A “bail out” would bypass the lengthy approval process by the Department of Justice that occurs when a precinct is moved. It is meant to ensure there is no disenfranchisement of minorities.

There was a ruckus over that issue, with Brenda Hale, President of the Roanoke Branch of the NAACP, and Bishop Edward Mitchell, President of Roanoke’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, objecting to any thoughts of a “bail out” in August 2010.

Long time SCLC member and activist Jeff Artis resigned from the SCLC over it.

Artis said at the time, “There is no racism in voting in Roanoke, Va. There hasn’t been for quite some time. If people in Roanoke don’t or won’t register to vote or vote on Election Day, they only have themselves to blame.” He bluntly called the opposition of Hale and Mitchell “wrong in withholding their support [for the bailout].”

 In the August 9 email the precincts suggested to be combined were:

• Raleigh Court 3 and Raleigh Court 4, with polling place at Patrick Henry High School.

• Williamson Road 2 and Williamson Road 6, with polling place at Preston Park Recreation.

• Williamson Road 3 and Lincoln Terrace, with polling place at Lincoln Terrace Elementary.

• Raleigh Court 1 and Wasena, with new polling place to be determined.

• Raleigh Court 5 and Fishburn Park, with polling place at Fishburn Park Elementary School.

• Highland 2 and Jefferson 2, with polling place at Highland Park Elementary School.

Additionally, it was proposed to move the precinct line between Jefferson 2 and South Roanoke 1 from Rosalind to Carolina between 24th and 26th Streets to allow the current polling place for Jefferson 2, Crystal Spring Baptist Church, to become the polling place for South Roanoke 1. This would move the polling place for South Roanoke 1 out of Fire Station No. 8. The Board and the Registrar have slowly been eliminating the use of fire stations as polling places to avoid the risk of interfering with emergency response.

The Electoral Board put a lot of thought into the proposal. It included making the precincts as close to the median number of voters as possible – 2750. They were careful to not split precincts or inconvenience voters. Williams said they would go back and review their proposal for changes.