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When a polling place is someone’s garage, is a ‘redesign’ realistic?

Karin Mac Donald, director, Election Administration Research Center | October 31, 2014

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.

trailer used as polling place

Polling station in Boothville, La. (Infrogmation image via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Comments to “When a polling place is someone’s garage, is a ‘redesign’ realistic?

  1. There has also been a substantial shift in the age/employment of volunteers in the last several years, I assume due to economic forces. When I started, the volunteer population was almost entirely comprised of older retireess. But it seems that since the economy tanked several years ago, most of the volunteers by an equally large margin have been 30-45 years of age and either worked part-time or were self-employed.

  2. I voted in someone’s garage in Burbank, CA today. This is the first time I’ve voted in California and I’m from the east coast. We always voted in elementary schools or high schools. I found it weird and absolutely uneventful. Especially since several of the workers spoke very little English.

    I think I’ll just mail in my ballot from now on, although voting at the polls was always one of my favorite things.

  3. I’m very surprised that the situation in SF has election precincts working out of people’s garages — has the increase in absentee/mail voters not affected it as strongly as it has elsewhere, or are there far fewer available school multi-purpose rooms & churches/synagogues?

    Up in Sonoma County where I’ve frequently volunteered as an inspector since 2002, we’ve shifted from having 3-4 busy precincts rubbing elbows in every school multi-purpose room, religious building, retirement rec-room, fire department, etc. to having a single fairly slow precinct in maybe three-quarters of those locations.

    There has also been a substantial shift in the age/employment of volunteers in the last several years, I assume due to economic forces. When I started, the volunteer population was almost entirely comprised of older retireess. But it seems that since the economy tanked several years ago, most of the volunteers by an equally large margin have been 30-45 years of age and either worked part-time or were self-employed.

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