I read with interest a recent opinion piece for WIRED magazine titled “America’s polling places desperately need a redesign.” In it, author Ted Selker — an inventor, design consultant and member of the Accessible Voting Team at UC Berkeley — describes the physical limitations of many polling places across the country (where everything from wheelchair access to the power source can be problematic), and contrasts that to the care that goes into designing, say, a Starbucks cafe.
As someone who lives and breathes the challenges of election administration, I’m all for raising public awareness of everything that goes into making a free and fair election, accessible to all. But we need to be concrete and realistic.
Take, for instance, the constraints under which polling places are selected. In densely populated areas of San Francisco, for example, there’s such a need for voting sites that many are located in citizens’ single-car garages, where the luxury of “design improvements” seems almost laughable.
Take one of the “bad” examples the piece cites: pollworkers trying to address a bottleneck situation (which they discover on election day) by using signs and markers to move voters in a more efficient manner. That, to me, is an example of pollworkers thinking on their feet. Sure, sometimes things don’t work out. But is it realistic that a few tired and overwhelmed volunteers, who see their work location for the first time on election day, have the luxury of using an online app to improve its layout?
And what about pollworkers connecting 20 plugs to one outlet — another situation described? Would they have used a single outlet if there had been more? And if there’s just one outlet available, how likely is it that there would be wifi access to run an app? And how would that work? Would voters form a line while the polling place gets reconfigured?
(Having said all that, most California county registrars survey each polling place ahead of time and provide pollworkers with instructions on how to set it up so that it’s accessible to voters with disabilities.)
Want Registrar of Voters staff, while reviewing polling places, to use the Polling Place Support Tool app described? You may get a few takers. But since each polling place is different, I suspect a lot of data entry would be required to get the app to work. Which is not realistic immediately preceding an election, when staff are pressed for time.
To understand how to improve our election process, we election-administration experts need to stand in pollworkers’ shoes. We need to sit in a chilly, single-car garage from 6 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night, triaging problems and struggling with election paper work. If we do, the research will benefit immensely.
Karin Mac Donald will be working as a roving inspector at Santa Cruz County polling places on Nov. 4. Read her recent post about pollworker training here.