Knox County Board of Elections

A small crowd gathered outside the Knox County Board of Elections on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 for the new facility's official ribbon-cutting ceremony. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (at podium) spoke during the ceremony, alongside several other local leaders.

MOUNT VERNON -- Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has seen plenty of local elections offices since the beginning of his tenure in January 2019.

Standing outside of Knox County's new facility Thursday morning, however, he said he'd never seen anything quite like this.

"This is the envy of many other counties," the state's chief elections officer said. The Knox County Board of Elections' new office, located at 104 E. Sugar St. in Mount Vernon, opened in May 2020. The late-morning sun glimmered off of its steel exterior as LaRose spoke.

"I visit all of our boards of elections pretty frequently – I’ve been to all 88 of them – and I can tell you that this is the nicest one that I’ve been to," he told a crowd of local leaders and residents. "You all should be very proud of that.”

Thursday marked the culmination of years of planning, preparation and execution – a $4.5 million project made possible through public-private partnerships.

It was the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Knox County BOE's new office (originally delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and it drew approximately 50 community members to the building's spacious parking lot off of Sugar Street.

"It’s truly an example of a public-private partnership, where local governments and private philanthropic organizations could come together to provide such a beautiful building, to create the efficient and easy processes for voting that we have," Jeff Gottke, chairman of the Knox County Board of Elections, said of the project.

It all began back in 2017, according to Knox County Commissioner Thom Collier. The commissioners were touring the old Central School, which had been vacant for several years after juvenile probation and adult parole services relocated.

"We were touring it, wondering what we were going to do with it," Collier recalled. "The structure that was so sound and so good that we said, 'We’ve gotta find a good use for that.'"

Built in 1939, the building served as an elementary school for decades. The Knox County Board of Commissioners purchased it in 2005, according to records from the Knox County auditor's office.

The building still appeared to be sound more than a decade later, Collier recalled. He and fellow commissioners Bill Pursel and Teresa Bemiller began thinking of alternative uses for the property.

"We knew the Board of Elections, it was difficult for elections to be held on the second floor over there," said Collier, referring to the BOE's old space on the second floor of the county service building. "Our elevators are old at the other building, and (parking) just wasn’t convenient. So we thought this would be perfect."

The county was also interested in relocating its Veterans Services Office from Pittsburgh Avenue to a more visible, accessible location. By renovating the old Central School, the county could potentially kill two birds with one stone.

"We had it drawn up and I think it’s ended up just beautifully for the public, to have easy access for voting, easy access to the Board of Elections, and much more common space for the veterans," Collier said. "This has worked out great for us."

An in-depth study by MKC Architects in 2018 showed the building was still structurally sound and worth preserving. But renovation costs would total close to $4 million. That's when The Ariel Foundation stepped in.

"They wanted to do something and they wanted to help veterans, and because the Board of Elections is also such an important aspect (of county government), they were agreeable to both of those things," Collier recalled.

The philanthropic organization donated $2 million for the project, allowing the county to feasibly foot the rest of the bill. LaRose's office contributed as well, helping fund IT and cybersecurity infrastructure for the BOE's office, and ensuring the building was ADA-accessible.

"(It was) truly a partnership between the county, between the philanthropic work of The Ariel Foundation, and then also through state government," LaRose said.

Mount Vernon-based Modern Builders began construction on the property in 2018. The building officially re-opened to the public in May 2020 – with the Veterans Service Office occupying the second floor and one half of the third floor (accessible via East Chestnut Street), and the Board of Elections occupying the first floor and half of the third floor (accessible via East Sugar Street).

"I was here in 2019 as the demolition was ongoing and I remember coming through here and seeing the work underway," LaRose recalled. "And what a great thing it is, to come back and see it now and see what it has become."

The first election conducted in the BOE's new space took place last November, when Knox County saw its highest voter turnout since 2008. Knox County BOE Director Kim Horn said the building couldn't have opened at a better time.

“We heard a lot of positive feedback on that, as far as the parking, there (were) no long lines, people were able to just go right in – it’s accessible, you know, with the elevators," said Horn, who has served as BOE director since 2009. "The accessibility and the ease of it was much better.”

The new location carries other benefits as well, Horn said, including additional storage space, easier access for poll workers, and upgraded security.

"Everything is much more efficient and smooth ..." Horn said. "It’s much better.”

While LaRose and others marveled at the facility's state-of-the-art design Thursday, the state's chief elections officer spent most of his speech talking about what goes on inside the building.

"What happens inside this building is something truly remarkable, and something that far too many of us take for granted," LaRose said.

Each county board of elections in Ohio is made up of a bipartisan panel – two Democrats and two Republicans – who are charged with administering the local election process. This means voting to approve petitions for local, legislative and congressional district offices, as well as petitions for local issues and options.

"Each of them (are) proud Republicans, proud Democrats, but when they come to work at the board of elections, they’re patriots first and foremost," LaRose said.

Not every state is structured this way, LaRose explained. As a result of this, LaRose called Ohio "the envy of the rest of the nation."

"Ohio is the gold standard of how to run elections ..." LaRose said. "In some states, if you’re the elected county clerk and if you’re a Republican, and everybody that works on elections in that county is a Republican; or if you’re a Democrat, then everybody that works on elections in that county is a Democrat.

"Not so in Ohio. It takes both Republicans and Democrats to do anything at the board of elections."

LaRose credited local elections officials – including the record-high 56,000 poll workers who volunteered across Ohio on Election Day last November – for the state's ability to overcome pandemic-related challenges and hold "the most successful election Ohio’s ever had."

The state saw record voter turnout – nearly 6 million registered voters cast a ballot, final tabulations show – and a bipartisan audit of the state's election results last November showed a 99.98% accuracy rate, according to LaRose.

"That’s a testament to the people involved ... The work that they did resulted in the highest turnout that we’ve ever seen in our state’s history; the lowest number of provisional ballots that we’ve ever had; the lowest number of absentee ballots rejected for voter mistakes that we’ve ever had; the highest number of poll workers that we’ve ever had; the highest number of early votes; and the highest number of absentee votes (submitted)," LaRose said.

“On every metric you could look at, Ohio ran the most successful election we’ve ever had in 2020. But we’re not gonna rest on that. The reason why Ohio’s a recognized national leader is because we’ve found the right balance – we make it easy to vote and we make it hard to cheat, and that’s exactly what we’ll continue to do.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.