When Brian Muldrow talks to voters in the 15th Legislative District, he hears a common complaint: There is no longer a polling place in the district.
The 15th district cuts through the heart of Auburn. It includes part of the city's west side between the Arterial and Genesee Street. Downtown Auburn is in the district, along with portions of North and State streets. It stretches to the east side, with a part of Grant Avenue and some side streets.
Until 2020, there were two polling locations in the district: Boyle Center on Genesee Street and Schwartz Towers on North Street. Both are senior housing complexes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last year, the Cayuga County Board of Elections decided to move the polling locations out of the senior apartment buildings. The two polling places were consolidated into one at Clifford Park Clubhouse on Mary Street — the facility used as Auburn's early voting site since 2019.
But Clifford Park is not in the 15th district. It is in the 14th district, which includes a large swath of the city's south side.
Under state election law, local election boards can move a polling place for one election district to a contiguous district. While some residents of the 15th district could pass through two other districts to get to Clifford Park, the district borders the 14th at the west end of the city.
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"Many of our residents in our area are elderly," said Muldrow, a Democrat running for the 15th district seat. "Some of our residents don't drive. And there are is a certain amount of people who don't know where Clifford Park is."
He is also concerned that there is a lack of information about where to vote. Election boards are required to notify voters of polling location changes. The Cayuga County Board of Elections informed voters of the new site before the 2020 elections.
Katie Lacey, the Democratic elections commissioner in Cayuga County, explained that COVID-19 restrictions prevented the board from having polling places in senior centers. Along with Boyle Center and Schwartz Towers, two other polling places in senior housing facilities — the Village at Auburn Grove and Northbrook Heights — were moved to Auburn Alliance Church on North Seward Avenue. However, the church is in the same district (the 11th Legislative District) as the two complexes.
One challenge for the election board in seeking an alternative polling site in the 15th district is the lack of accessible buildings. State law requires polling places to be "accessible to citizens with disabilities and comply with the accessibility guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990."
"We drove around and quite honestly, it's tough to find a spot," Lacey told The Citizen on Thursday. "We decided to reuse the place (Clifford Park) that we use for early voting. I don't think there's a problem with space for voting and it's close enough to the district that we're well within the regulations."
It's a similar problem the board encountered when identifying a new location for voters in the 12th district, which includes the southeast corner of the city. The polling place was Auburn High School, but because of concerns about parking and the presence of school buses, it was moved to Emerson Park in Owasco.
The key difference between the two districts is that one, the 15th, has a competitive election this year.
Muldrow and Republican candidate Brian Dahl are running to succeed Cayuga County Legislator Ryan Foley as the 15th district's representative. Muldrow noted that Foley ran unopposed in 2013 and 2017. His predecessor, Cynthia Aikman, did not have an opponent in 2009.
It has been 20 years since the last contested election in the 15th district. Steven Netti, a Republican, defeated Democratic challenger Sam Giangreco. Netti ran unopposed for reelection four years later, in 2005.
Muldrow knows the polling place might not be changed before the election, but he's hopeful that more information will be shared so voters know where to cast their ballots.
"I'm concerned about the elderly people and the disenfranchised people in our communities," he said.
There is another option for voters if they can't make it to the polling place. Lacey reminded voters that they may request an absentee ballot. Absentee ballot applications, which can be obtained online or from the board of elections, are due by Oct. 18. The last day to apply for a ballot in person is Nov. 1.
Voters may use COVID-19 as an excuse to receive an absentee ballot.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.