Americans are scrambling to set up polling sites in gyms, libraries, and arenas to make sure people have enough space to vote in November

A woman wears a face mask as she votes on primary election day on June 2, 2020, in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • The process to set up a polling site varies from state to state.
  • Hosts who’d like to set up polling sites have to take into account different requirements and restrictions, such as room size, lighting, and proximity to an alcohol-serving restaurant.
  • Election officials recommend that people interested in hosting a voting location reach out to their local county representative or office.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown voting into a state of disarray, forcing the delay of dozens of primaries, bringing on a heated battle over expanded vote-by-mail access, and leading election officials to adopt various changes to in-person polling sites. In light of poll closures and expansions in voting-by-mail, election officials are adjusting to changes brought on by the coronavirus as they prepare for the November presidential election.

While states are still offering in-person voting — only five states offer vote by mail as a sole option — the number of polling sites nationwide is rapidly dwindling. According to a 2019 report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights advocacy group, 1,688 polling sites have closed between 2012 and 2018, accounting for 39% of all polling site closures in more than 750 counties during that six-year period.

“When polling places are closed, they may cause voters to have to travel a lot farther to exercise their constitutional right to vote, and this is not an option for many without access to transportation,” said Leigh Chapman, director of the Voting Rights Program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “There is also confusion about where to vote if a neighbourhood polling location is closed at the last minute. The end result is that voters are disenfranchised.”

Georgia’s June primary, for example, had too few physical polling locations, which contributed to a wide set of problems such as voters — many of whom were people of colour — reporting having to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home to almost 70% of the state’s Black residents, voters also faced long lines and limited polling sites during the state’s April primary, according to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Molly Beck.

In an effort to provide greater access to the ballot, polling sites are popping up in unexpected locations across the country, ranging from large sporting arenas to local gyms and libraries. The process to set up a polling site varies from state to state, according to county election laws and election officials who spoke to Business Insider.

How to establish a polling site

Generally, county officials have final approval on all new polling locations. In some cases, county officials, like those in the San Diego Registrar in California, put out an open call for polling places. In others, community members looking to host a polling site take on the initiative themselves.

Some counties nationwide are more flexible with the kind of locations that can be turned into a polling site. Multiple California counties, for example, compensate people to host voting sites out of a private facility like a garage.

Dad's Garage Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia
The interior of Dad’s Garage Theatre, which will be cleared out to serve as a polling site this year, in Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of Dad’s Garage Theatre, Atlanta

These sites often come with a series of requirements, as outlined by the San Diego Registrar. A room, for example, must measure at least 18 feet in length and width and have good lighting for ease of reading and movement. There are also restrictions, such as the mandate that a polling site cannot be “at the home of a registered sex offender.”

Alabama, on the other hand, generally does not allow personal facilities to function as polling sites, according to Frank Barger, a probate judge in Madison County, Alabama.

“We don’t take the creation or the change of a polling location lightly, because folks become accustomed to voting in a specific location. So, changes to polling location, additions to polling locations, are done as far in advance as possible, then voters are notified,” Barger told Business Insider.

Because of laws specific to Alabama and its counties, most polling locations in Madison County are “in either a government facility, like a community centre or a recreation centre, or they’re in a church,” according to Barger.

In Michigan, polling sites are preferred to be located in a public building like schools and fire stations, but officials might make an exception out of “necessary” circumstances, according to a handbook from the Michigan Bureau of Elections on establishing polling sites.

Requirements and restrictions can vary from county to county and from state to state. At least 10 states, for instance, take into account a potential polling site’s proximity to an alcohol-serving restaurant.

Across the board, all polling sites must adhere to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a law enacted “to establish minimum election administration standards for states and units of local government,” and thus must be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means all established polling sites must offer accessible parking, routes, and drop-off locations, along with several other requirements. The Election Assistance Commission, the agency serving as the governing body for all elections in the United States, outlines temporary solutions to reach ADA compatibility.

In addition to accessibility, multiple states also emphasise several safety measures, like the need for ample space to ensure an orderly flow of traffic.

This year, potential hosts also have to take into account ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus. All polling locations should have “enough interior space to ensure that voters can socially distance while waiting in line and casting their ballots,” according to the National Conference of State Legislators, a bipartisan group dedicated to serving lawmakers in every state.

Converting a location into a suitable polling site isn’t an easy undertaking, and local election officials recognise that it can be a big ask.

“Being a polling place means between a few hundred and possibly 2000+ voters will be walking through their facility,” reads a guide for establishing polling places published by the city of Madison, Wisconsin, which does not compensate hosts for providing a location.

But there many benefits of offering up a private space to serve as a polling site, the Madison guide says.

“We want voters to be able to vote. One of the best ways to do that is to have their polling place as close to their residence as we can get — ideally within walking distance,” the guide reads. There’s also the benefit of voters feeling more encouraged to cast a ballot if the polling site is more familiar to them, according to the guide.

There is no one way to establish a new polling site, and election officials recommend that people interested in hosting a voting location reach out to their local county representative or office.