Polling Place Consolidation: Negative Impacts on Turnout and Equity

Executive Summary

As states and localities grapple with how to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, increased access to absentee voting has emerged as an essential piece of the puzzle. In primaries across the country states have rapidly expanded access to absentee voting and have seen record numbers of absentee ballots cast. Yet, while absentee voting gives elderly and immunocompromised people a safe way to vote and can alleviate crowding at in-person polling places, it is not a silver bullet to the problem of safe voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to ensure safe, equitable voting is possible in November, increased absentee voting must be coupled with greater opportunities for safe, in-person voting. 
 

As primary voters went to the polls this election cycle, states closed and consolidated polling places at an unprecedented rate. Some of these states had made significant reductions in polling places over the last few years, making the pandemic-related closings even more detrimental. Unfortunately for voters, research shows that consolidating polling places suppresses voter turnout even when coupled with increased absentee voting. This is particularly true for Black and Latinx voters, who already disproportionately face voting barriers in states across the country. Studies show that while absentee voting can partially offset the suppressive impacts of polling place consolidation for white voters, it is less likely to reduce the negative effect on voters of color. 
 

Consolidating polling places during the 2020 elections won’t just disenfranchise voters, it will force them to put their health at risk. This is particularly true for voters of color, who are already experiencing dramatically higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death.[1] The only way to make voting both safe and accessible in November is to continue expanding absentee ballot access while maintaining sufficient in-person polling places on Election Day and during an extended early voting period. Without a sufficient number of in-person polling locations, the pressure on each individual polling place will be too high to avoid long lines and crowded, unsafe voting conditions.
 

Difficulties with poll worker recruitment and retention has been offered as a justification for polling place closures. But states and localities cannot abandon their duty to administer fair, accessible elections just because it is hard. This report describes strategies that states and localities have deployed to invest in poll worker recruitment.[2]
 

It is not too late for decision-makers and advocates to take action: states and localities are still creating their plans for November, including locking in Election Day polling places and, where permitted by law, early voting sites, days, and hours. This report describes the following recommendations related to polling place consolidation for use by advocates and decision-makers:

  • Maintain as many polling places as possible for the November general election as polling place consolidation cannot be fully mitigated by other voting methodologies and disproportionately disenfranchises voters of color.

  • Increase early voting opportunities to relieve Election Day pressure on polling places.

  • Select in-person polling locations based on data and community input to minimize the impact of consolidating polling places.

 

  • Provide robust training for poll workers, many of whom are likely to be serving in this capacity for the first time.

  • Educate voters about changes to voting locations and processes.

[1] Maria Godoy, “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State by State?,” NPR (May 30, 2020), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/30/865413079/what-do-coronavirus-racial-disparities-look-like-state-by-state. See also, Joshua Cheetham, “Navajo Nation: The People Battling America’s Worst Coronavirus Outbreak,” BBC (June 16, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52941984.

[2] To learn more about states' poll worker recruitment efforts, select the "Recruiting Poll Workers" topic in the Voting Rights Lab COVID-19 State and Local Response Tracker.

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© Voting Rights Lab 2020