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Thousands of Americans Faced with New Polling Locations in November PDF  | Print |  Email
By M. Mindy Moretti, electionline.org   
September 04, 2008
Officials move sites for a variety of reasons, from accessibility to availability

The following article appeared in electionline.org's weekly newsletter and is reposted here with permission of the author.

When the H.D. Cooke Elementary school in Northwest Washington, D.C. was closed for renovations, the Board of Ethics and Elections moved Precinct 38 out of the basement of the building to a building a block and a half away. Unlike the school, the new precinct is accessible for people with disabilities. But it is also smaller and likely to be more congested than the school.

For registered voter Charles Boone, the move, while not logistically difficult, proved difficult mentally.

“I’d been voting at Cooke for years and don’t get me wrong it had its problems [inaccessible to handicapped voters], but the move to the Festival Center has been one of those things that’s taken me a while to get used to,” Boone said.

Although Boone has had several elections to get used to the new polling site, thousands of Americans will be facing new polling locations for the first time on November 4.

The reasons why polling places need to be relocated vary as do the facilities used, from people’s homes to fire stations to churches. But one constant is change.

In Franklin County, Ohio, the Board of Elections has relocated 321 polling sites since the 2004 election.

“We’ve had space limitations, parking limitations and some public schools that just closed,” Ben Piscitelli, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections told The Columbus Dispatch.

Whether moving a polling site encourages or discourages voters from turning out is an open question among voting experts.

“The [sites chosen] for polling places are important, but it is still only a marginal part of the turnout equation,” said James Gimpel, a University of Maryland government professor who specializes in geographic and demographic targeting for campaigns and elections. “We all know of people who live right across the street from their polling place and they still wouldn't vote. There is a more fundamental motivation problem at the bottom of low turnout and this is very hard to fix.”

Gimpel adds that election officials should move cautiously when choosing to relocate a polling location.

“In general, moving polling places is not a good idea unless the old location is inaccessible or difficult to reach. It can be confusing to voters, even though they must be officially notified of a move, usually by mail,” Gimpel said. “And if it increases the burden of getting to the polls, it can discourage turnout among those who are only marginally interested in politics.”

People have strong connections to their polling sites and the act of going to that site to cast a ballot. Rachel Bell moved to Portland, Ore. about seven years ago and even though the state offers all vote-by-mail, Bell, who grew up on the East Coast and started her voting life in West Virginia, refuses to put her ballot in the mail.

Each election she personally goes and drops off the ballot on Election Day.

“We’re all creatures of habit and for me, my habit was formed by going to the voting booth with my parents and then on my own once I turned 18,” Bell said. “I even came home from college on Election Days to cast my ballot at what I call my family polling site.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she added. “Vote by mail is awesome, but for me because I got hooked on voting by going to a voting booth, I’ll probably always drop off my ballot on Election Day instead of mailing it.”

In 2007, the Bucks County, Pa. board of elections voted to move a polling site out of an apartment complex to a location around a mile away. In making their decision, the board pointed to letters it had received citing violence near the polling location. The local newspaper reported that during a five-year period leading up to the relocation of the site that there were 92 assaults, 41 drug-related incidents and 15 sexual assaults at the apartment complex.

In August of 2008, two voters — and long-time residents of the apartment complex, who make up 75 percent of the voters registered in that district —filed a federal lawsuit against the county and the board for moving the polling location. The lawsuit accuses the county of moving the polling place in a deliberate attempt to discourage voting.

“The main thing [when establishing a polling location] is to use accessibility criteria, usually developed within the planning profession, in order to choose optimal sites, so that no one in an area is disadvantaged by the location,” Gimpel said. “State election law can sometimes make site selection more difficult because of its requirements for polling place size, parking and other accommodations.”  

For the recent primaries in Alaska, a polling location was moved from a local Safeway to a church. Regional elections supervisor Alyce Houston told the Juneau Empire that the move was prompted because the polling location had interfered with customers trying to have lunch and the new location also means that officials will no longer have to concern themselves about violating election rules should the newspaper on stands near the voting booth contain political information.

However, from floods, the tornadoes to hurricanes, weather probably plays the greatest hand in the relocation of polling sites — even if it’s just temporarily.
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