ST. CLAIRSVILLE - William Shubat remembers a time when most people could simply walk down the street to cast their ballots at their local voting precincts on Election Day.
To comply with the Help America Vote Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, however, election officials have closed many of the local polling locations in recent years, often consolidating many voting precincts into one large polling center.
"You used to have a precinct on every corner. But we have to follow the law to make sure every polling place is handicap-accessible," said Shubat, director of the Belmont County Board of Elections. "Our board does not want to move any polling locations unless they have to. But to meet these requirements, that is what we sometimes have to do."
Shubat and Kelly McCabe, deputy Belmont County director, said board members were "concerned about depressing the vote" but had to comply with regulations. Shubat also said the move to consolidate precincts into large voting centers was not about saving money, noting that the same number of poll workers are required.
Although the county once had many polling places, there will be just 27 for the Nov. 6 election. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that Belmont County has a population of 70,151. By comparison, Ohio County has 28 polling locations for a population of 44,246, though much of this population is concentrated in the city of Wheeling.
Shubat and McCabe emphasized that some of the county's polling places are located in the sparsely populated southern and western portions of the county.
"Some of them are really far out there," she said. "We have worked with the (Ohio) Secretary of State's Office to get those locations into compliance under the new requirements."
One voting location officials recently moved was the one located at Union Local High School. Voters in Morristown and Belmont originally cast their ballots within their individual municipalities, but they were later relocated to the area's high school to vote. In 2010, however, these voters saw their precincts moved again - this time all the way to the James E. Carnes Center, near St. Clairsville.
"We know it is an inconvenience to some of the folks. But that is what we have to do to comply with the rules," said Shubat.
"Anyone who wishes to can now vote by absentee," he added, noting voters can contact the office at 740-526-0188 for more information regarding absentee voting.
As for the specific reasons ULHS was disqualified as a polling place, Shubat and McCabe said there were issues with the parking lot having too much of a grade; student drivers in the parking lot; and students in the hallways.
"We really do not want to go into schools any more than we have to," Shubat said. "It is hard when you have some of the people, many of whom are older, trying to go through hallways with kids running around."
"Once you got into the gym, naturally, it was big enough," McCabe added of the ULHS facility. "The problem was getting people into the gym."
Bridgeport High School is the only active school listed as a voting center in Belmont County this year. Shubat emphasized the new facility is fully handicapped-accessible - and features divisions that will allow voters to enter the school without disturbing students, while allowing voters to proceed without bother.
More broadly, Shubat said some of the factors that can lead to a polling place being disqualified include: rooms not being big enough; hallways not being wide enough; loose gravel parking lots; have few if any handicapped parking spaces; the opening and closing apparatus for the doors; a lack of ramps for wheelchairs; etc.
Some have also expressed a concern that having 10 or more precincts voting in the same polling location could create confusion about where one is supposed to vote. McCabe said this concern should be alleviated by the fact that poll workers check off voters' names in books to make sure they are registered to vote in that particular precinct.
"If someone does not have their name in the book, the poll workers call us. We take care of the problem as quickly as we can," she said.
Voters in Belmont County are assigned to the following polling locations this year: