Polling Locations: Yes, a Partisan Advantage

Several days before the special congressional election in California’s 25th Congressional District, Los Angeles County election officials decided to add an in-person voting center in Lancaster, one of the more diverse cities in the district.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are very few in-person polling sites and the election is largely a mail-in ballot affair. 

However, Republicans immediately contested this move, claiming Democrats were seeking an electoral advantage by opening up another polling location in a Democratic heavy area.  The Los Angeles County Democratic Party did in fact make the request and the Democratic County Clerk accommodated. 

Why dispute a voting location? 

Local Discretion

Local election administrators – county clerks – are generally elected to their posts – though some are appointed.  Like other elected officials, clerks serve two masters.  First, the public.  Second, a reelection constituency composed primarily of fellow party members. 

And therein lies the problem. What may be best for the public may not be for the party – clerks may maneuver polling locations for political advantage.

County clerks draw precinct boundaries and identify the location and the number of polling sites.  By selecting one site over another, or adding one and subtracting others, the clerk determines the distance people travel.   Research shows that as distance increases, people are less inclined to vote.   

It now seems reasonable why Republicans cried foul in Los Angeles County.  A Democratic clerk placed a new polling location in the center of a strong Democratic area.                

Judicial Action     

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to check with the federal government before making changes to local voting processes – including the number and location of polling sites.  In 2013, the Supreme Court (Shelby County v. Holder) struck down that requirement.  Since then, local officials across the nation closed nearly 900 polling places. 

For example, Texas’s Medina County, a heavy Republican area, closed the only polling location in the town of Natalia, which leaned Democrat.   Similarly, Tucson’s Pima County, largely Democrat, lost 62 polling places.  

In the remarkable case of Dodge City, Kansas, a town where Latinos account for nearly 60% of the population, there was only one polling site.  That site served 27,000 residents and was positioned near the civic center, in a wealthy, largely white part of town.

Regardless of party, election administrators appear to use polling locations as a means to influence turnout.  

Our study

In our own study, we used Google Maps to determine distances between registered voters and their polling locations in a medium sized Kansas County.  In the county, Democrats are the dominant party and the county clerk – a Democrat – has won several elections.     

If a bias in the placement of polling locations existed, it should favor Democrats.  

Distance traveled

The average distance traveled for over 81,000 registered voters was just over a mile – 1,873 meters.  Across the 72 county polling sites, 517 meters was the shortest travel average and 8,651 was the longest.  Travel distances did vary by party identification.   In 43, or 60 percent, of the 72 polling locations, Democrats traveled a shorter average distance than Republicans. 

On average, Republicans traveled 2,318 meters to reach their polling site while Democrats 1,621 meters.

The figure below displays the distances by party affiliation.  While most voters traveled less than 1600 meters – about a mile – the much taller blue bars show a significantly greater percentage of Democrats than Republicans did so.  However, for distances greater than 1,600 meters, the red bars are now taller – demonstrating comparatively more Republicans traveling greater distances than Democrats.        

  

Histogram of Voters’ distances to polling locations by party.

Rural/City

One cause of the disparities could be the fact that Republicans are more likely than       

Democrats to live in rural parts of the county. There are simply less voting locations available, which increases travel distances. 

The Table below shows that after taking into account place of residence, differences still persisted.  Whether in rural areas or in the city, Democrats travel shorter distances to their voting locations. 

PARTYRURAL (N)CITY (N)
REPUBLICANS4,412 (6,935)1,349 (14,991)
DEMOCRATS4,226 (4,302)1,188 (25,916)
Party, Rural/City and Average Distance to Polling Locations (meters)

Just the beginning

Our history is beset with examples of partisan conflict over ballot access.  And 2020 will be no different.

Like never before, people are aware of politics.  The pandemic intensified this awareness and the expected economic turmoil to follow will do so as well.  Every vote counts.   

Therefore, local administrative decisions that influence everything from ballot design to the number of poll workers will receive additional scrutiny.  Perhaps the most scrutinized will be the number of polling sites and where they are located.      

We can also expect a surge in vote-by-mail.  However, not every state or every locale has the means to make this a reality. 

Early voting sites and Election Day voting locations will be the primary method.  Do not be surprised if relocations, consolidations and even additions to polling locations that favor one party over another occur.  Though this may seem unfair, local political pressures can be intense.   

The vast majority of election administrators will act in the public interest.   But in a highly partisan and ultra-competitive electoral environment, we should expect some will not.   

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