Restaurants, basements, funeral homes, car repair shops…you name it, the city has probably tried it out.
Philadelphia’s voters are heading to the city’s 1,687 polling places today. To accommodate this many districts, the city has to get pretty creative in finding election sites. We sent reporter Kerry Grens out to visit some of Philadelphia’s unusual polling places.
(Photo: An image from photographer Ryan Donnell’s ‘Behind the Curtain’ project. For more on the project, see below.)[audio:101102kgpoll.mp3]
Shell: Now as you can see right now it’s pretty much just a garage full of the usual garage stuff. Paint cans, bicycles, old ladders and such.
By the time voters come, Joseph Shell will have cleared out the clutter to make room for a pair of voting machines and a handful of poll workers. He also installs extra lighting and a space heater to keep the workers warm with the garage door open all day.
Shell: Fortunately we’ve been blessed that on most election days the weather’s cooperated. I only remember maybe twice in all the years we’ve had it here that it’s rained.
Shell’s home in Germantown has welcomed voters for more than a decade. He volunteered after a local official asked neighbors to offer an alternative site to the unstable front porch that had been used.
In Southwest Philadelphia, Harry Palmer, speaking in the quiet and soothing tones of a funeral director, rearranges chairs and couches to make room for voting machines.
Palmer: We try to arrange the funeral home during election day where it doesn’t look like a funeral home. We’ve even went as far as in the past have balloons out front on the awning. Little red, white and blue streamers so people know yes this is the right place. This is the polling place.
Polling site videos
How a deli, a bar, a barbershop and a Germantown garage became voting sites:
Terry Burns, owner, Luke’s Back Room, Kensington
Alcides Franceschini, owner, Consider It Done barbershop, North Philadelphia
Joseph Shell, resident, Germantown
John Connell, owner, Lee’s Hoagie House, Northeast Philadelphia
(Produced by Kimberly Paynter)
Voters cast ballots in the chapel of the Williams and Palmer Funeral Home. Palmer says he never hears complaints from residents about voting there.
Palmer: Normally what people say when they come in, especially is this is their first time, they say, you know this is pretty nice. We like the colors. They’re soft, they’re comfortable and they’re relaxing.
Restaurants, basements, car repair shops, you name it, the city has probably tried it out.
Lee: We would love nothing more than to have a brand new, fully accessible public building in every voting district. It would make our life a lot easier…But unfortunately it’s not a reality.
Robert Lee is Philadelphia’s voter registration administrator. Voting districts can have no more than 900 registered voters. Lee says it’s good for the large number of people who walk to the polls.
Lee: If they were any larger than that it would be very difficult and it may lead to long lines and lead to people not waiting to vote and disenfranchisement.
So Lee has to turn to private homes and businesses to host election day. One of the biggest challenges is finding places that can accommodate voters with disabilities. Many sites don’t. He’s bought 10,000 door stops, 130 aluminum ramps, and numerous threshold mats and wedges over the years.
Lee: We have probably I believe over 100 buildings fully accessible even with the parking. There are quite a few polling places we’ve modified to be accessible. We’re working on it.
It creates a perennial headache for Lee to find people willing to rearrange their home or business for the ninety dollar election site payment. But he knows that polling hosts do it for more than the money.
Alcides Franceschini is the owner of Consider it Done barbershop, a polling site in north Philly.
Franceschini: I remember the best turnout was the presidential election with Obama…The line was long and everybody was like, oh my god we’re going to have the first black President. It was an amazing time. To be part of that was payment enough.
The elections also give Franceschini a bit of free advertising. He says he’s gained a few clients who first came through his shop to vote. He says a barbershop makes sense as a polling site, because people come here to talk neighborhood issues or find out what’s going on.
Franceschini: The barbershop is where everything happens sometimes. You know what I mean? You hear everything in the area.
My own polling place is another frequent scene for community gossip, activity and heated discussion.
Burns: Back here is the back room of my bar. Pool table, shuffle board, video game, pin ball. Piano.
Terri Burns owns Luke’s Back Room in Kensington. Voting machines have cluttered up her lounge since before she started working here twenty seven years ago. The walls are filled with posters and dusty art, green plastic ash trays line the bar. Burns says a few people make comments about coming to the bar to vote.
Burns: The older older like the 80 years old. They say something.
Grens: What do they say?
Burns: Oh, why do we got to go to a bar and vote for this stuff? Why in there? Just come on in, you probably drank in here your whole life.
And they may have been voting in here just as long, too.