Ben Kallos, NYC Council Member, 5th District
Doug Kellner, Co-Chair, New York State Board of Elections
Maggie Ollove, Service Designer and Civic Researcher, Center for Civic Design
Eric Spencer, Development Director, Ennead Architects; Democratic District Leader, 73rd District Part C

Fauzia Khanani, AIA Associate; Principal, Studio Fо̄r

Summary by Carin Barbanel

How welcoming are the spaces in which we vote? Can we find our way through them efficiently? Welcoming physical sites encourage citizens to participate in our democracy, yet designers and architects aren’t usually asked to consider that usage when envisioning a common area. Fauzia Khanani, AIA Associate and Principal of Studio For, moderated a panel of prestigious experts who summarized the history of voting in New York and innovations that are improving voter participation. Attendees were then invited attendees to imagine improvements to voting methodologies that New York’s Board of Elections (BOE) may be able to implement.

Doug Kellner has been working in the election space for decades and currently sits as Co-Chair of the New York State Board of Elections. He discussed how voting has evolved in New York. Ben Kallos, New York City Council Member, connected this legacy to current unfair incumbent advantages. Maggie Ollove, civic researcher and designer at the Center for Civic Design, illustrated how improved ballot designs impact electoral outcomes. Eric Spencer, Director at Ennead Architects and a Democratic District Leader in Manhattan, connected these themes and posited ideas for our future.

Kellner began with an overview of the history of voting in New York, which began in colonial times. Absentee ballots were created to enable soldiers serving in the Civil War to vote, ensuring Lincoln’s reelection. By the turn of the century, the US government was printing ballots, implicitly limiting the field of candidates. Voting machines and confidential ballots improved access and the rolls were expanded. Nonwhite voters and, finally, women gained the franchise a century ago. The voting machines with the handles that many of us remember from childhood were introduced in the 1950s. Only recently did New York move to scanned paper ballots and electronic poll books, and early voting was just introduced for the first time this year.

Kellner went on to give some background on how elections are administered now. Election Districts (EDs) are geographic divisions designed to include a similar number of voters. These are further split into Assembly Districts (ADs). One question that was posed: Do voters really need to vote in their ED/AD now that we have electronic poll books? So far, the answer is yes. Even if voter rolls are portable, crowd control is still a real concern; imagine the mayhem of NYC residents wanting to vote in midtown on election day! The ED/AD system is also necessary to maintain the secrecy of votes and provide a proper audit trail. Further, online voting is not a viable option as there is no way to ensure an election will not be compromised.

NYC Council Member Ben Kallos discussed downsides of the Election District system. An incumbent legislator can select a polling place amid bevies of supporters or put several ADs in one site to create long waits that can dissuade others. More often, difficulties in distributing poll sites are usually logistical, not nefarious. There are not sufficient public spaces for every New Yorker to vote without friction. During presidential elections that friction is substantial. Electronic poll books and early voting help but we can do more. Kallos asked participants to encourage co-op and condo boards to invite the BOE into large ground floor lobbies of their buildings.

Maggie Ollove spoke about the design of ballots themselves. She reminded us of the problematic ballot that resulted in 2000’s Bush vs. Gore nightmare scenario. She then showed us examples of better ballots, but explained that BOE officials who create ballots are not designers. They are, however, eager for instruction. Suggestions such as using 12 point sans serif fonts and page designs are generally welcomed. Ollove closed by sharing successful ideas from other districts such as drop-off ballot acceptance. 

Eric Spencer spoke to the current political climate, reassuring the audience that our era is not the most contentious in our country’s history. Even as social media’s fractious nature exacerbates our awareness of divisions, community spaces can combat disharmony. Voting by mail is convenient, but creating a festive atmosphere a lá the City Streets program could return an element of community spirit to the voting process. Additive, adaptive solutions might include putting tents in parks and including other civic outreach in these spaces.

Fauzia Khanani segued to the closing activity, in which attendees broke into small groups for conversations about voting as a spatial act. The panelists each joined a group of attendees to suggest solutions. Some ideas included thoughtful signage coupled and better placement of voting equipment to increase throughput, allowing voters to hand off completed vote by mail ballots in subway stations and other public spaces, placing mobile polling trucks in public plazas.

One idea of note for those who design buildings: include polling usage in the original design specs for buildings that are likely to be used as such. Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause, suggested architects and designers read the report produced by The Presidential Commission on Election Administration. It contains industry-tested solutions that can be incorporated into polling site plans.

This was an energizing and inspiring evening. Voting gives the people who inspire us the power to act on our behalf, so it was fitting to focus on how design can support and inspire people to participate in the process of self-government.

Please join us for future events.