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Historic Voting House may reopen as polling site for May 21 primary

| Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

After a nine-year hiatus, the historic Simpson Voting House in Derry Township could return as a polling place in time for the May 21 primary.

And just a week before voters head to the polls, the circa-1890 clapboard structure will be designated as a “Keystone of Democracy” by the Pennsylvania Department of State.

It will be the third polling place given the award — which requires 50 years of consecutive use — in the program started about a year ago by Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele.

“The idea there is to recognize the physical building, the county, the precinct workers and the people who came there to vote,” said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the department.

The county has spent $15,000 and four years working out details of the Simpson Voting House project, which moved the last free-standing polling place in Westmoreland County from its former site near Pittsburgh Raceway Park to county-owned property a mile east on Route 22 for renovations.

Department of State officials met with commissioners and Derry Area Historical Society representatives in December and determined that the Simpson Voting House meets state standards to be a polling site. But before that can happen, the building's parking lot must be paved, a handicapped-accessible railing must be installed and county commissioners must give final approval.

If so, it will be the first time since 2004 that the building is used by about 500 voters in the district, who had been relocated to the New Alexandria Fireman's Club.

The small building, not much bigger than most people's living rooms, was used for 122 consecutive years before closing in 2004, said Evelyn Ruffing of the Derry Area Historical Society.

“The thanks for everything goes to the volunteers,” she said, who donated time to re-establish the voting house once it was moved.

Once Election Bureau officials finalize all the polling place changes to be approved by commissioners, a meeting date will be set to determine the final list of primary voting locations, said county Commissioner Ted Kopas, the minority Democrat on the board.

“It's been a long time coming, but I think it's a unique voting experience for the people in the Simpson district of Derry,” Kopas said. “These are minor things that need to be taken care of, and they will.”

Republican Commissioner Tyler Courtney said he and fellow Republican commission Chairman Chuck Anderson were never against finishing the project, but were concerned with spending an additional $15,000 for repairs when it was uncertain whether the building could be used. Volunteer work has made up for those lost funds.

“Now it's been determined that it's an acceptable voting facility,” Courtney said. “We're excited about the opportunity to use it.”

Anderson said officials take voting very seriously, which is why decisions regarding the Simpson Voting House have been delayed.

“Whether or not it's going to be open for the primary, I can't tell you for sure. We have to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed,” he said. “It's a work in progress and we have to make sure we do it right before opening it up as a polling place.”

Anderson and Kopas both said the final improvements will be completed through a partnership between the county and the township.

County public works officials are seeking estimates for the materials and the township plans to complete the work.

“We'd like to get some partnership in it, so everyone can have pride in it,” Anderson said.

A ceremony to recognize the Keystone of Democracy with Aichele, commissioners and historical society is scheduled for May 16 at the voting house.

“It's a rich history and it speaks to the fact that the people in Derry Township and Westmoreland County shared the secretary's feeling that the polling place is an important part of the election process,” Ruman said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or sfederoff@tribweb.com.

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