Election odyssey: lesson two, location, location, location

One extraordinary thing I’ve learned after watching polling place operations, in a number of different jurisdictions since 2000, is that every polling place is unique. There has been little or no discussion of standards for polling places — their layout, their accessibility, parking, lighting, and so on. And so as we rapidly approach the 2006 federal election cycle, it is clear that many problems still exist with polling place practices.

These problems arise, typically, because election officials have great difficulty securing polling places, especially in places like California where we seem to have had so many elections recently. So election officials sometimes seem to get stuck in a bind, needing polling places of a certain size in certain places, and thus having to take what they are offered. They thus select sites which to outside observers sometimes look like bad choices for polling places.

A continuing problem is accessibility for disabled voters. Our observers have repeatedly documented polling places in every recent election that either are not accessible for disabled voters, or are often very difficult for disabled voters to access. One example of this problem was seen in stark detail in the recent mayoral election in the City of Los Angeles, at a voting precinct located inside the gym of the Rockdale Elementary School, 1303 Yosemite Drive. This picture of the only entrance to the polling place that was unlocked shows the accessibility problem; note that I am standing on the top of a flight of stairs, waving (me in the blue shirt), while VTP team observer Karen Kerbs (in white jacket) is standing at the bottom of the stairs. An inspector from the city clerks office arrived while we where at this location (in fact, she might be the person in the blue shirt on the cell phone down the street from us); I pointed out the accessibility problem to her, to which she agreed it was a problem, and made a note of it. Of course, there are procedures in place for “curbside” voting, but that requires that the disabled voter be able to get the attention of a polling place worker, it distracts the polling place worker from their duties inside the polling place, and it may not give the disabled voter the opportunity to cast a secret and private ballot.

Here is another example from the recent California special election, at a polling place located within the Pasadena Open Bible Church, 130 North Hill Avenue in Pasadena. This situation was spotted by some of my Caltech undergraduates, who wondered how a disabled voter could possibly navigate this accessibility ramp. It appears that there was originally a ramp to enter this building associated with the church, but that subsequently the structure on the left was erected, blocking the ramp. Polling place workers seemed somewhat unaware of the situation, until the students pointed it out to them, and their response was to note that they would be happy to lift a voter’s wheelchair, or to help a voter, into the polling place.

Luckily, poll workers recognize some of the difficulties that disabled voters face. Here is a good example, at the Corona Fundamental Intermediate School, located at the intersection of Main and Grand, in Riverside County. The polling place inspector brought along his own orange cones and created signs to establish a parking place for disabled voters in the closest possible street parking location. Unfortunately, a disabled voter still had to make their way a few hundred feet up the street, and then down two school hall corridors, in order to cast their ballot inside the polling place.

This leads to a second accessibility issue, though one that might be more specific to urban jurisdictions than rural ones. That is voter parking. Parking is a significant issue in many areas, and is one that makes it difficult for some voters to have an opportunity to cast their ballot. In some cases voters must be really dedicated, and be willing to either find distant parking, or in some cases pay to park their cars while they vote. In one example last week, at the Church of the Angeles (110 North Avenue 64 at Church Street, Los Angeles County), an existing shortage of parking spaces for voters in a very small and crampled parking lot was compounded by the presence of a television or movie crew shooting something at the church on election day. Or it can just be the location of a polling place in a downtown area, here downtown Pasadena, while other local events are going on making it impossible to find any free parking in the immediate vicinity of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church (Colorado Blvd. at Madison).

These examples show that the parking accessibility issue exists in urban areas, especially when other events occur on election day in the same area. But one place where we repeatedly see difficulties with parking are public schools, during school hours. One example was shown earlier, at the Corona Fundamental Intermediate School. Another one was at the Garretson Elementary School (1650 Garretson Avenue, Riverside County). This first shot is from the street, showing that voters had to park across the street from the school, while school was in session. The second perspective is from within the parking lot.

Public schools, while in session, pose some unique challenges for polling place workers, other than the parking issue. As shown here at Murchison Street Elementary School (1601 Murchison Street, Los Angeles County), voters must be kept separate from school children (note the yellow warning tape), to keep the school orderly and to keep strangers from wandering around the campus (thus posing potential risks to the kids). And sometimes school life intrudes on the polling place, as shown here at Murchison Street Elementary School, where school officials needed access to some musical instruments in the middle of the voting day!

One final point about location. While laws prohibit “electioneering” within close proximity to polling places, they don’t tend to cover other points of access to polling places. For example, in a vast parking lot behind the polling place located in a parish hall at the Corpus Christi Catholic Church (3750 Magnolia, Riverside County), one small “Yes on 73” sign was located in the parking lot, as was one large “Yes on 73” sign nearby. For those of you not closely following the California special election, Proposition 73 was the “Waiting period and parental notification before termination of minor’s pregnancy” measure (this wording is from the official voter guide). There were no other political signs located in the vast church parking lot, and there is no indication that church officials or anyone actually associated with the church put the signs in the lot. However, the relationship of such signs in a catholic church parking lot, on election day, may raise some concerns. When organizations take positions on certain issues, and those issues are prominent features of an election like the special election, that may mean that election officials might exercise caution about using the facilities of such organizations for polling places.

Thus, there are clear issues associated with polling place location. In later essays I’ll talk more
about polling place layout and interior design. But as I started this essay noting, we probably need to initiate a discussion soon about the development of standards and useful best practices for polling places.