October 20, 2020

Considering the History Behind Your Polling Place

Every year Americans gather to perform what is perhaps our most important act of civic duty—casting ballots for elected officials and important issues of our day.

In a normal year, absent a pandemic, we would be coming together, in person, at polling places in our community (and in some cases we still safely are). As lovers of history we all know that every polling place has a story, and by opening these doors for civic engagement, these spaces open up the possibility of interacting with people who may not normally come through those doors.

Ballot Box outside the Hall of Records in New Haven, Connecticut.

photo by: Preservation Connecticut

Ballot Box outside the Hall of Records in New Haven, Connecticut.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the 2018 general election more than 230,000 places were used to cast ballots. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that only 1% of these places were election offices.

And for 351 days a year, 99% of polling places operate as something else entirely, as churches, schools, municipal buildings, etc., or are temporary (ex: ballot drop boxes).

For many of us that save places, we look first at a building’s history tied to its original use. If it was a religious structure, we analyze how the space was utilized for worship; if we are looking at a home, we assess how the amenities reflect technological advancements and cultural shifts.

While we primarily focus on long-term usage, polling places present a unique layer of interaction. For a couple days out of the year, these locations transform to accommodate the electoral process. As these are temporary modifications to a structure, it is harder to know how people engaged with the space, presenting an interesting opportunity for people to interact with a structure and all of its layers of history.

Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio.

photo by: Sarah Marsom

Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio.

For any building to transform in a polling place, it experiences temporary modifications that do not leave any trace, yet encourage you to visit the space in a new way. You may go into a room that is not typically open to the public, or maybe you stand in a line and have the time to look around and admire architectural details you would normally walk past.

Most states have legislative language outlining what types of buildings can be a polling place. The majority of states encourage the use of public and/or tax-supported buildings. In thirteen states, there are no recommendations or restrictions on what types of buildings must stand as a polling place.

In 2020, ballot drop boxes have increased to make voting more accessible, and they create a unique opportunity for neighborhoods to interact with fellow residents. Located outside of public structures or along sidewalks in residential areas, the possibilities for stories of these places involve more than a single structure, but a broader community’s story.

Interior of the Monroe County of Board of Elections in Rochester, New York.

photo by: Caitlin Meives

Interior of the Monroe County Board of Elections in Rochester, New York.

With every state having different criteria, the possibilities of what types of buildings are being used for voting opens up a world of wonder: What is the history tied to these structures (permanent or temporary), and how do the temporary modifications for voting procedures connect people to these places?

For example, I typically vote at the Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, which is less than a mile from where I live. The original school was built in 1950 and replaced in 2006. The bell tower is the only part that remains from the original mid-century design. Due to safety concerns, schools are places that people do not typically get to visit (unless they have children), so I look forward to my annual visit to Fairmoor to see hallways lined with children’s art and to vote in the gymnasium.

While pondering the history of my polling place, I encouraged people to share their polling place online, while including any story attached to it—recent past, their personal experience, an architectural feature, or something else entirely.

Interior of the DeKalb County Courthouse

photo by: Andrea Kern

Interior of the DeKalb County Courthouse in Auburn, Indiana.

Here is a sampling of polling places around the country that people shared with me:

Rochester, New York: Caitlin dropped off her absentee ballot at the Monroe County Board of Elections. The office is in “a gorgeous Italian Renaissance building, designed by prolific local architect J.Foster Warner (whose father, AJ Warner designed the adjoining former City Hall Building).” The structure has always been utilized for various governmental uses.

The exterior of Grace United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

photo by: Ryan Reed

Exterior of Grace United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Lincoln, Nebraska: Preservation Lincoln shared the former Grace United Methodist Church at 27th and R Streets. “The building was designed in 1975 for 'maximum flexibility' of use by Bahr Hanna, Vermeer and Haecker.” Today the structure serves as a church as well as a distribution site for FoodNet, a program that dispenses food to individuals in need across the city.

Auburn, Indiana: Constructed in 1914, the DeKalb County Courthouse was designed by Mahurin & Mahurin. Located in the Downtown Auburn Historic District, a National Register of Historic Places-designated district, the Dekalb County Courthouse serves as a polling place for Andrea. Andrea not only votes at the courthouse, she works annually as a poll worker. For some their civic duty extends beyond the ballot, they choose to spend a day helping others know how to participate in the electoral process. Poll workers develop an added layer of connectivity to a polling place.

Elsewhere in Indiana, Anne voted this year at the former Kokomo Post Office, which is currently the Howard County Government office building.

Austin, Texas: “My chosen polling place is a contemporary, semi-suburban Shriner's temple. The building is not so interesting... but the hall to the voting room is lined with historic panoramic photos of Shriner's conventions and gatherings. Lots of fantastic outfits. Many bears. It helps keep a person entertained while standing in line.” —Caroline W.

Decatur, Arkansas: Originally a National Guard Armory, the Fort Decatur Recreation Center was designed by Carolyn Cortner Smith, one of Arkansas’ earliest female architects, according to Caroline S. who usually votes in this building.

New Haven, Connecticut: Preservation Connecticut shared a ballot box: “New Haven has ballot drop boxes in front of the Hall of Records, where the town/city clerk's office is located. The building with its muscular Doric colonnade was constructed in 1929 to designs by Edgerton Swartwout of New York. Dwarfed by the columns, the small plaza in front of the building is the only tiny fragment ever to be realized of Paul Rudolph's plan for a new government center, one of many unbuilt projects from the city's urban renewal era.”

Union Station Los Angeles exterior

photo by: Barry Schwartz

Exterior of the Union Station in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, California: There are 765 vote centers that any county resident can vote at. For some people this is causing difficulty in choosing where to vote, when they can vote at Dodgers Stadium, Union Station, or the historic Pantages Theater.

Every polling place has a story beyond its role as a temporary place to participate in civic engagement. From contemporary government buildings, to structures that have evolved from their original use, each location opens the visitor up to a unique glimpse of their community's civic identity (and daily life).

As we know ,voting is an important part of the American identity. Consider the possibilities of how we as preservationists can document and tell these more temporary stories of our built environment and leverage them to create connections between the past and present.

Sarah Marsom is a heritage resource consultant in Columbus, Ohio.

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