Part of the Douglas County Courthouse is moving to The Malls Shopping Center; space will be new home for election workers
photo by: August Rudisell
UPDATED 5:25 P.M.
I’m not sure many people would say the American electoral system has been epic fun lately. But in Douglas County, we soon will be able to say the headquarters for local elections is located in the former home of the arcade business Epic Fun.
Douglas County officials have announced that the elections division of the county clerk’s office is moving into The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana streets. The county will lease the approximately 8,500-square-foot space in the northwest corner of the shopping center that used to house Epic Fun.
No, I don’t believe the new elections headquarters will be able to keep the old whack-a-mole machine. (Certain politicians have an understandable fear of the whack-a-mole concept.) But the new space will have several features — and importantly will be absent of one feature that is prominent at its current home in the historic Douglas County Courthouse. The new site won’t have stairs for would-be voters to navigate.
The courthouse building at 11th and Massachusetts streets immediately greets visitors with a series of stairs to get to the main floor lobby. The new location will feature about a 1,400-square-foot lobby that will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The county clerk’s office will use that lobby to set up voting booths during election seasons.
To be clear, there will continue to be polling places throughout Lawrence and the rest of the county, just like always. The new location will be one of those polling places, but the main function of the space will be as office and warehouse space for the county employees who work in the election division.
The county has five employees devoted to organizing and managing elections. They have shared office space with the other county clerk employees on the main floor of the Douglas County Courthouse. During big elections, the county frequently has had to rent temporary space in other parts of the community to allow for training of the approximately 300 poll workers used during an election.
This new space will help with that issue. It also, though, will mark the end of one election night tradition. Historically, candidates, supporters and media members have gathered in the old County Commission chambers on election night to watch the vote counting and be the first to receive results.
That activity now will occur at the 23rd and Louisiana location. The space will include a large community meeting room equipped with monitors that will allow the crowd to follow the counting process and the results. The county said in a press release that the community room would be available to community organizations at other times during the year.
The new location also will have high-tech warehouse space. The clerk’s office is responsible for storing ballots, voting machines and other types of sensitive information. With that in mind, the warehouse will be equipped with a tracking system that will monitor when an item is moved within or outside the building. County Clerk Jamie Shew said the Lawrence location will be one of the first election offices in the country to implement the equipment detection and tracking system.
Shew told me he had hoped for the new space to open in mid-July, but he said construction is behind schedule due to some supply chain issues. He said a decision will have to be made soon on whether the county will try to use the center for the upcoming local primary elections. Advance voting in the primaries will begin in July.
“I still hope to be open for the start of voting in the middle of July, but a ‘go/no go’ decision will have to be made soon to avoid confusing voters,” he said.
Shew also clarified that there are plans to continue to allow people to register to vote at the County Courthouse location once the new elections office opens. He said the plan is for the courthouse to include a walk-up window where people could ask questions, get directions on county offices, register to vote and other such tasks. However, he said work still needs to be done with county commissioners on how that window will be staffed and what other resources will be needed for the project.
Parts of the county clerk’s office will remain at the courthouse. The real estate, accounts payable and payroll division will continue to be based at the courthouse. In addition to election duties, the new space at 23rd and Louisiana also will be the place where residents can file for a Homestead Tax refund, apply for a cereal/malt beverage license, or buy a hunting or fishing license.
It will be interesting to watch whether this move by the county clerk’s office is a sign of things to come. The county noted that the decision to move the elections division was guided by a previous space study conducted by the architecture firm Gould Evans. It identified some limitations that the old courthouse building has in meeting the current needs of county government. The election space issue was one of the biggest needs, but it will be worth watching whether the county will consider moving other government functions out of the downtown area. Too much of that could end up being a fraught issue, as the base of government employees helps support the variety of downtown restaurants, shops and other businesses during the weekday hours.
The move also comes with some financial implications. The county will lease the space rather than own it. Annual lease payments are expected to be about $100,000. The county also is estimating that about $495,000 of renovations will be needed to the space before it opens.