The Falls Church City Council determined at its work session Tuesday that it will put it to a vote on next Monday night to reduce the number of voting precincts in the City of Falls Church from five to three.
The number has been five for as long as anyone can remember, but following the guidance of the City’s new voter registrar David Bjerke and with the backing of the citizen-volunteer Electoral Board, the move to three would serve to better enable the smooth conduct of elections in the City, the Council was told.
The primary reasons were given as reducing the number of polling place officials required and eliminating at least one voter location — the Boy Scout House on S. Spring St. — that has inadequate heating and air conditioning and its Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance is questionable. The American Legion Hall on N. Oak would also be eliminated, although maintained as a backup if needed.
The locations to be retained under the plan will be the Thomas Jefferson School, the Community Center and the Oakwood Apartments.
If approved by the Council with two votes, one Monday and another on Sept. 19, the plan would go to the U.S. Department of Justice for review, and would not be completed in time to change anything for this coming November 8 election. It should be in place in time for the March 6, 2012 presidential primary election, however.
Speaking to the Council Tuesday, Bjerke laid out six reasons for the consolidation, including (1) budget factors, that would save a modest amount (about $1,500 per election), (2) current precincts do not have uniform population sizes, (3) temperature and other problems with the Scout House site, (4) efficiencies important to a small staff, (5) reducing the requirement for election officers, and (6) Virginia election law’s preference for using government buildings (Thomas Jefferson School and the Community Center) when possible, the exception being the Oakwood Apartments as the only option east of Washington St. (Rt. 29) with adequate size, parking and ADA compliance.
Renee Andrews, chair of the City’s Electoral Board, told the Council that the level of service to voters will not change
She said that in the case of the Scout House location, it is very difficult for election workers to be there from before 6 a.m. when polls open to after 7 p.m., when they close, up to 16 hours, when it is either sweltering heat or bone-chilling cold.
Council member Robin Gardner concurred, as one who votes at that location, adding that elderly or disabled voters have to be escorted around the back of the building to make their way in.
“The Scout House is also the only polling place that charges the City for use on Election Day, has the smallest amount of usable space, and the ramp used for compliance with ADA requirements leads to a back door, rather than the front door that is the entrance to the polling place,” the City staff report noted.
On the issue of ward size, Virginia election law allows for up to 5,000 registered voters in a ward, but “best practices” in Virginia are aimed at holding ward sizes to about 3,500 registered voters. In the proposed plan for Falls Church, the three precincts (instead of five) would all still have less than 3,500 registered voters.
Ellen Salsbury of the Falls Church League of Women Voters, asked to comment by the Council, said that while her organization does not have a position on the matter, one way or the other, “We will be watching, and will help get the word out.”
Mayor Nader Baroukh was luke warm about the proposal, saying the upsides a “marginal,” and suggesting that “if the current system is not broke, why fix it?” He was concerned about confusion among voters about where to vote, and that some close-knit neighborhoods might get split into different precincts.
Some tweaking on the boundaries of the proposed three wards will be made at City Hall prior to Monday’s Council meeting.