The Problem of Polling Places in Churches

The Problem of Polling Places in Churches November 26, 2012

A friend of mine went to vote on primary day in August, for the first time in a new town. His polling place was at a church and they made sure they had material spread around the room where you cast your ballot telling you how to vote “pro-life.” My former colleague Andy Birkey has a report on similar situations around the country:

In South Saint Paul, Minn., on Election Day, residents showed up at St. John Vianney Catholic Church to vote and were greeted with a banner outside the polling place entrance that read, “Strengthen Marriage, Don’t Redefine It.”

Minnesota was voting on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and the Catholic Church had been the most vocal proponent of the ballot measure.

Voters snapped photos of the banner, which quickly gained attention on Twitter and Facebook.

Ivan Kowalenko took one of those photos. He told Minnesota Public Radio, “I was shocked, I didn’t think that would be allowed. I was hearing that you’re not allowed to wear any political slogan of your own, so it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate that a voting venue would be allowed to express an opinion.”

At a separate polling place at St. Joseph’s Church in West St. Paul, Stephanie Weiss was waiting in line to vote, and she noticed a sign posted to the wall. It was a prayer, written by Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt, that urged Catholics to defend God’s plan for marriage — between one man and one woman.

She took a picture of the sign, which was shared on Facebook among many opponents of the amendment.

“I thought, this is why you can’t campaign within 100 feet. This is how you disenfranchise people, right here,” she told The Star Tribune. “If it isn’t campaign material, it was still a really insightful experience for me, but I’m shaking.”

In my hometown, I also vote in a church/parochial school, but none of this goes on. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were you’d have no idea that it was a Catholic school. We voted in a large room with nothing on the walls other than official election material and nothing like the sort of things cited above. There needs to be some strict rules on this. If you’re going to vote in a church, they should have to remove all material that is overtly political or religious from the places where voters will be that day.

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  • hunter

    My polling place is in a church — a Baptist church, as a matter of fact — and my experience is like yours: no campaigning inside or within a hundred feet of the entrance. I’ve never seen any sort of signage or anything like that inside the polling place.

  • Cuttlefish

    It’s bad enough they are in churches to begin with; it’s not like it’s a reasonable request to ask the church to, say, remove their steeple or their identifying signs on the day they lend out their function hall to the community. So, for some churches at least, there is no possibility of being a neutral location.

  • When Washington had polling places (we now have mail-in elections) it was ILLEGAL to have anything that might be construed as electioneering materials within… I think it was 250 feet of the polls, including (in theory) printed t-shirts, buttons, stickers, etc. It is a pity that more states do not have such laws.

  • erichoug

    I know I sound like a republican when I say this but they really don’t need to create new rules/laws for this. They simply need to enforce the existing laws on the books. If the church cannot remove partisan material as determined by a neutral election bureau then the local election supervisor should simply choose another polling place.

  • felicis

    My polling place is in my living room – here in Oregon we vote by mail. A system that I recommend for every state!

  • Most of us should be asking why we even have polling places in an era when we can refinance our mortgages online.

    Why isn’t there an app for that?

  • Cathy W

    Felicis, what safeguards are there against coercion, whether by other household members or outsiders?

  • Michael Heath

    I live in a very rural red-state part of Michigan; so red it’s unusual to see Democrats on the ballot running for local office. I vote in my township’s hall.

    I’ve never encountered any objectionable materials or behavior. Everyone administrating the election is very professional and they have a sufficiently sized staff to get people through fast, except this past election where I had to wait about an hour to an hour and a half. That wait was due to a local fundie “college” bringing a bus of their young male preachers-in-training over to vote.

    Even this “college” agrees with the scare-quotes; they had a suit brought against them by the state of MI about having to maintain a certain standard of behavior. They claimed they didn’t need to meet that standard because they weren’t really a college, in spite of calling themselves a college. They won, so they’re not a college, though they call themselves one, which IIRC is Grace Baptist College. At least their inconsistency is consistent.

  • kestrel

    @#6: Good grief, just THINK of the cries of voter fraud if we did have such a system!

    The bigger problem is, not everyone has a computer. Have to admit though, it would be very cool.

  • I voted for the first time at my local Catholic church’s basement. I remember there was a cross at the far ends of the room, but other than that, it was quite sparse. No pamphlets or anything, no posters on the wall. Then again, this is NYC.

  • eric

    I thought that was blatantly illegal in every state. IMO leaving crosses uncovered is no biggie, but AFAIK any ‘handout locations’ for electioneering materials are supposed to be kept X feet (50, 100, whatever, probably depends on the state) from the polling place.

  • jamessweet

    In 2008, my polling place was a church, and while there wasn’t anything overtly political, there were big crosses and at least one YEC timeline. Seemed pretty shady to me…

  • I remember when the ban on gay marriage was up for vote here in Texas. My polling place was inside a church. Oddly, I think it was a Mormon church, too. Naturally, I suspect it was offered and chosen to be a polling place to put the fear of god in those of us who subscribe to the blasphemous notion that marriage is an agreement between consenting adults. It didn’t work on me, but it still registered as a dick move.

  • Matrim

    Yeah, this year they moved my polling place, which had been at a local public school for at least the last 20 years, to a Catholic church. I wanted to complain, but I didn’t know where to do so, and none of the officials I spoke to did either (or pretended they didn’t so they wouldn’t have to deal with it). Consequently I voted early at the county auditor’s office.

  • @felicis #8 –

    My polling place is in my living room – here in Oregon we vote by mail. A system that I recommend for every state!

    Except that Postal Service cuts could affect state’s mail-in voting:

    Washington’s all-mail election system, already dealing with public frustration over how long it takes to count ballots, is about to face a new challenge: U.S. Postal Service cutbacks.

    State elections officials say the planned closures of five mail-processing centers in Washington would require voters in rural areas to submit their ballots earlier on Election Day — and possibly delay ballots arriving at county elections offices.

    The changes would leave the state with just two centers for mail to be sorted and postmarked, in Seattle and Spokane.

  • regexp

    Is it churches in general? Or just the Catholic church? I think this year was unusual where you have an active proponent of an amendment also owning the property that you vote in. The Catholic church has acted unethically in every way during this election year. I’m not surprised at their continued childish behavior extended to polling places on their property.

  • DiscordianStooge

    Well, there was the complaint that an “It takes a village to raise a child” banner at one church was somehow an explicit endorsement of Obama.

    (The ALL CAPS complaint is typical, of course). I’m sure this is being touted as a “Dems do it too” moment, despite being nothing like having literature directly related to the election sitting around.

    I especially like the complaintant saying, “The church claims it’s an African proverb.” They claim that because it is.

    As for my voting place, I had to vote at a chrch too, but it was a Unitarian church, which is like not voting at a church at all.

  • Kestrel @ 8:

    Okay, we could have polling places for people who don’t own computers. But there is no reason that we can’t setup a secure online voting system, putting aside the mythical voter fraud whale.

  • My polling place was in a parish hall. I don’t recall that it was overtly Cath-O-Lick but then I’m pretty inured about that sort of thing these days.

    Wonder how they’d react to folks offering prayers to Vishnu, Turtle or FSM? I also wonder whether they’re getting a check for the use of the hall?

  • magistramarla

    As an educator, I have a problem with having polling places in public schools, too. The voters were supposed to stay on the far end of the campus, in the auditorium, but there never failed to be at least one odd-ball who would be caught wandering the halls with the students. Once, a guy was even found trying to buy lunch in the cafeteria.

    I found this worrisome, and I was concerned for the safety of our students, as well as concerned that things could be stolen. One teacher’s purse disappeared from her desk on election day.

    I worked in a high school, but my big concern was the fact that elementary schools were also used as polling places. If we had so many security problems, I worried about what could happen in an elementary school.

    Why can’t polling places be in community centers, or even a rented empty building?

  • Hatchetfish

    Cathy W @7: Absolutely none, same as everywhere else.

  • tynk

    The signs that were hung at the churches here in Minnesota are illegal and they were both removed very quickly once the “error” was pointed out to the correct people. I think they were both down before noon.

  • Rip Steakface

    @d.c.wilson #18

    The voter fraud whale may be mythical for in-person and mail-in voting, but online voting is far more easily subject to hacking and security compromises than meatspace. A motivated cracker/hacker could easily set up elections to go hir way by intercepting data (for example, using a botnet).

    Hell, that would probably be the way to go about it. Set up a large botnet that would intercept elections communications and change votes to your views.

  • fwtbc

    magistramarla @ #20

    Not being from the US, your comment made me do a double-take at first, and then an “oh yeah” moment a moment later.

    I think public schools are excellent choices for polling places, and the problems you point out would cease to exist if another problem was fixed, that being that elections are held on a work/school day. Move election day to a Saturday or Sunday (or better yet, the whole weekend) and an awful lot of problems should go away.