Polling Places: Critical and Scarce
Where’s my polling place? That’s the last thing any election official wants a voter to wonder on Election Day.
Even though voters aren’t thinking about that yet, local election officials are. They're working to find sites that are willing to host a polling operation and that are free or low cost, ADA compliant and convenient for voters. Finding such sites is a perennial problem, and it’s made harder this year by COVID-19, which has already caused some locations—schools, long-term care facilities, community buildings—to opt out of hosting polling places.
While many voters may use mail or absentee ballots this November, as record numbers did during the primary season, voters will still need safe and accessible in-person voting locations.
This year’s unusual circumstances have spurred clever solutions. So far, three NBA teams have offered their arenas as polling places because they are large enough to accommodate social distancing for voters from many precincts, and they may even be a draw for voters who’d like to see their home court up close. Others have encouraged big box retailers to step up, and some election officials are getting creative, expanding the concept of “polling place” to include parking lots where voters wait in line in their cars to cast ballots. Even so, for many jurisdictions, finding a polling location is like finding a wedding venue—not impossible, but fraught.
State law dictates what facilities can and cannot be used, so now is the perfect time to review what your state’s statutes say about polling places. Find more information about laws on polling places on our new webpage.
What can policymakers do to help secure polling places? They can start by talking with state or local election officials to find out what their concerns are and whether current statutes are adequate for their needs—or exacerbating their worries.
To learn what’s going on in your area, here are some questions you might ask state or local election officials:
How do you find suitable polling places?
Polling places must be located close to the voters who will use them (the Center for Inclusive Democracy’s Voting Location Siting Tool can help), and they need to be accessible for all voters. Fortunately more and more buildings are ADA compliant, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission outlines temporary solutions to make buildings more accessible. Polling places should also have adequate parking, clear entrance and exist routes and—this year, at least—enough interior space to ensure that voters can socially distance while waiting in line and casting their ballots. Ten states restrict polling places based on proximity to alcohol-selling establishments, which may limit options. And if outdoor venues are used this year, election officials will have to add meteorology to their job descriptions and predict the weather.
Meeting those basic requirements may be all that election officials can do, but it could be worth considering the visibility and aesthetics of a polling place, too. New research shows that polling places with high visibility and high-quality interior space are associated with increased turnout.
What issues do you have in getting enough polling places?
Thirty-five states mandate using public buildings as polling places when practicable, but due to the pandemic, many of those spaces—such as libraries—may remain closed to the public and unavailable for the general election. Poll worker shortages, too, affect the number of polling places that can operate during the election.
Are schools willing to serve—and are the kids attending on Election Day or are the schools child-free that day?
Twenty-three states specifically mention using schools as polling locations. Although K-12 schools may have many desirable qualities for use as polling locations, safety concerns have caused a slow move away from using them while children are in class. Currently, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island and Tennessee require that schools be closed when used as polling places. Four other states—California, Illinois, New Mexico and North Dakota—encourage schools to be closed, and three—Arizona, Georgia and New Jersey—say that when schools are used as polling places, elections cannot interfere with normal school functions. Of course, many schools may be online this year or operating in a hybrid format, leaving school buildings more available for election officials.
Are there regulations about college and university campuses?
Only California and Colorado require or encourage the placement of polling places on college or university campuses. California Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D) sponsored AB 59, which encourages election officials to place vote centers on college or university campuses. Noting that turnout is lower among young people, he said, “We need to get creative about how we bring democracy to our young voters.” Although these locations may be less pivotal this year, with so many schools choosing to move classes online, Kalra added that many community colleges may be in the middle of neighborhoods or densely populated communities, making them good contenders for vote centers even if students aren’t in session.
Are senior living facilities willing to serve—or are they all off the table this year?
Senior living facilities may not be willing to host polling places as they have in the past because their residents have higher risks of complications from the virus. During the primaries, several states moved polling places away from senior living facilities and nursing homes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends relocating polling locations from long-term care and senior living facilities “to help protect older adults and those with underlying medical conditions from potential COVID-19 exposure.”
Do you pay the facility a fee, and is this a significant budgetary consideration?
With states and many municipalities facing major budget shortfalls, cost matters more than ever.
Are there possibilities for curbside or drive-through voting?
To make voting accessible, many states offer curbside or drive-through voting to those who cannot access the voting area due to physical limitations. Some states expanded this option during the primaries. In Utah, for example, legislators passed HB 3006, which eliminated in-person voting for the primary and gave counties the option to offer mobile voting. Utah Representative Jefferson Moss (R), the bill’s sponsor, said, “When I came on board it [the bill] was 100% vote by mail, no provisions for the last-minute voter.” He credited local election officials for the inclusion of a safe, in-person option and stressed, “Covid has been horrible, but we are finding a lot more innovative ways to do things.”
Do officials use one location for several precincts (consolidated precincts) or vote centers? Do they wish they could?
A consolidated polling place serves more than one precinct at a single location, and vote centers are locations where all voters within a jurisdiction can vote, regardless of their residential address. Sixteen states allow jurisdictions to use vote centers on Election Day; additional states may permit the use of vote centers during the early voting period. In 2020, Alabama passed a bill allowing Marion County to use vote centers.
Want to learn more?
Check out NCSL’s webpages on polling places, vote centers and poll workers, as well as these additional resources: