Charlottesville and Albemarle County are taking a look at their voting and records spaces as a number of bills that would extend early voting move through the General Assembly.
On Wednesday, the county Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to approve a five-year lease for approximately 11,600 square feet of space at the Albemarle Square shopping center on U.S. 29. The space would become the new home of the Department of Voter Registration and Elections, currently located in the 5th Street County Office Building.
County staff say a move of voting services and records space is necessary to meet even current needs for no-excuse absentee, in-person voting, known as early voting. Legislators passed a seven-day early voting window during the 2019 session, but now are looking at extending the ability to cast absentee ballots even further.
Lance Stewart, the county’s director of facilities and environmental services, said additional space is a major need in order to conduct early voting, and that the county wants to avoid issues with long lines and parking.
“We’re trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen for our community,” he said. “Voting is the most important thing we do as citizens.”
A number of voting-related bills are moving through the General Assembly, including eliminating the need for an excuse to vote absentee, ultimately allowing voters to vote any time in the 45 days before an election, including the upcoming Nov. 3 election.
Currently, officials are anticipating between 30% and 60% of registered voters could vote early.
The county expects initial capital costs to be up to $610,000. Operating costs are estimated to be approximately $11,600 in FY20 and $225,000 in FY21, and include rent, utilities and facility and information technology maintenance.
In addition to early voting concerns, Stewart said the county sought another location because of cybersecurity security measures and because parking is already an issue at the 5th Street County Office Building.
About 4,000 square foot of space at Albemarle Square would also be made available for a community center, which would then be available as a polling location during voting cycles.
The move also would open up approximately 5,000 square feet of office and storage space at the 5th Street County Office Building, which staff say will help meet the space needs of other departments.
Currently, the county is leasing office space for the Office of Economic Development and the finance department outside of county-owned buildings.
The county is working on a facilities master plan study, to be completed this summer, that will look at a 20-year projection of space and needs.
In Charlottesville, General Registrar and Director of Elections Melissa Morton said her office will not be able to relocate at this time, but said she will be removing some furniture and other items to make more space for equipment needed for early voting.
“After this election I will be looking for other space, but I don’t know if it’s in the budget for us to relocate our office to make it more convenient for city residents to get to,” she said.
Overall, Morton said, her office is in a fairly central space in the city at the City Hall Annex, but no-excuse, in-person voting may cause some longer lines. The staff plan to use the large lobby space just outside the office to check people in and will try to route small groups through the office to vote.
In the city’s upcoming budget, Morton also has requested to hire additional staff to help with the amount of expected voters.
“That 45 days of absentee is really going to test every election office, every election office staff member, it’s going to test the state and it’s going to test the voters,” Morton said. “We just have to get out and let the public know that because of the early voting no excuse law we are adapting our office to the best of our ability.”