Election day is huge for Philadelphia. With more than one million registered voters in the city, one of the crucial tasks for the City Commissioners office is finding locations for the polling places.
Finding sites for polling places in Philadelphia can often prove difficult because of its urban location. Of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, 48 are rural, meaning most voters in Pennsylvania drive to their polling spots. In Philadelphia however, voters walk to their respective locations.
This gives voting, one of the most revered civic duties, a community-oriented feel and is one of the reasons that community recreation centers are often selected as polling places.
“A rec center is an obvious choice, in that there is a communal feeling anyway,” said Christopher Windle, the supervisor at Starr Garden Playground. “I think that coming out to vote is a communal experience and communal effort.”
Because recreation centers are often hubs of activity and sports for a community, there are still programs scheduled on the day of the election. The rec leaders at these polling locations must accommodate in what could potentially be a hectic schedule.
Palumbo Playground in South Philadelphia is one of those community centers gearing up for election day.
“These last two weeks have been our busiest two weeks of the year,” said Palumbo Recreation Leader Brian Conti.
Around 1,000 to 1,500 people use the facility every day, he said.
“They come out, even on an off-year, not a presidential year,” he added. “It’s just a highly used rec center on any given day.”
Palumbo runs an after-school program for kids in the community every day and organizes various sports leagues at the site such as flag football and soccer. They also rent out their fields to local club sports teams to practice on.
While the after-school program will be canceled on election day thanks to the closing of public schools, the sports programs will still be running. Conti also expects public foot traffic to come through Palumbo as well.
“We still have programs in the gym and we still have the playground outside,” Conti said. “Some other schools, like Charter Schools, have school and they can use the facility in a normal way. Just not the multi-purpose room.”
At Starr Garden, just a few blocks north of Palumbo, on 6th and Lombard streets, Windle believes his experience in a recreation center leadership position has prepared him for the hectic scheduling and circumstances that may complicate programming for events like election day.
“You really have to be careful,” Windle said. “I found out through having made some mistakes, you really have to be careful about the permitting. You really have to get a very accurate schedule.”
The polls are not operated by the respective rec centers, but rather by a staff of volunteers provided by the city. Conti, who normally works from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on a given week day, had to adjust to accommodate the polling staff.
“I have to basically make sure the building is open at 6 a.m. Just make sure everything is clean back there,” Conti said. “They do everything with the polling. They count how many come through the doors and how many people voted. I basically have to be here to make sure the building is open for them.”
The functionality of rec centers is also a major reason why they are such a popular spot for polling. They are easy for pedestrians to get to, but also conscious of those who may be disabled in the local community.
“Most of [the rec centers] are handicap accessible,” said Fred Voigt of the City Commissioners’ office. “Because of wheelchair accessibility we use a variety of buildings. Those are all factors that come into play with the use of school buildings and recreation centers.”
“It’s a place in the neighborhoods where everyone knows where to go,” Conti said.
Each polling place in the city is staffed by five officials, three of whom are elected from that district. The number of voting booths and staff at each location is determined by the size of the division where the polling place is located. The number of voters in each division can range from 150 to 1,500 voters.
While the City Commissioners’ office provides data on how many voters are registered in each respective division and can use that to deduce the right number of staff and voting booths to provide, the actual turnout may vary.
According to the City Commissioners’ office, the 2008 presidential election saw the highest voter turnout in recent memory, with roughly 65 percent of voters coming out to the polls. In this election, the rec leaders at the polling places are prepared for anything.
“I hope a lot of people vote,” Windle said. “And because of that, I want to be on-hand.”
-Text, images and video by Ben McWilliams and Tim Merrick.
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