by Betsy Daniel, Charlotte Laffler, Peter Martin, Vera Voropaeva, Motoko Shoboji
Voting is the bedrock on which our government institutions derive “their just powers,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. It is a civic act allowing those who are eligible to participate in our democratic institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many facets of our day-to-day lives, from the way we work and learn to how we interact and engage with our communities. But even more consequently, pandemic conditions called into question how we would vote in this pivotal election year.
With a record number of absentee ballots and early voting, our voting systems and voting spaces have been put to the test. As architects and designers—but more importantly as citizens—what can we do to contribute to voter participation and enhance democracy for all?
To address this topic, on October 29, five members of the 2020 class of the AIANY Civic Leadership Program, Betsy Daniel, AIA; Peter Martin, Assoc. AIA; Motoko Shobiji, AIA; Charlotte Laffler; and Vera Voropaeva, AIA; convened a panel of experts representing city government officials and experts in design, technology, and community outreach.
The evening began with an overview of the history of voting in New York and the United States more broadly. The Constitution sets strict standards for the formal process of certifying elections but leaves “the Time, Places, and Manner of holding elections” to the states themselves. While Congress has the authority to intervene as they see fit, historically these interventions have related to the equal protection of voting rights for citizens. Thus, the particular means and methods of elections are left to be legislated and administered by the autonomous governmental bodies of each state.
From the onset, this ambiguity has caused not only political division but has created an ever-changing understanding of who participates in elections and how they are conducted. The mass-produced ballots and private polling sites we know today, are drastically different from the first elections, where eligible voters were required to present themselves and voice their vote in front of a crowd.
Beginning with the Myers voting machine in New York State in 1889, technological advancements through the 19th and 20th centuries allowed for the standardization of ballot designs and the ability of states to hold larger universal elections and reduce error. Still, the patchwork of means and methods by which the United States votes in its elections is confusing for many, and qualified designers are often absent from decisions regarding the physical and spatial process of voting.
The lack of universal laws regarding suffrage has also extended to the makeup of the electorate. Not until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act and previous legislation including the Nineteenth (1920) and Fifteenth Amendments (1870) would the United States begin to even approach universal suffrage. Nonetheless, voter turnout today reflects higher turnouts for groups that have historically faced little discrimination at the polls: wealthy white citizens.
Among other means of disenfranchisement (whether intentional or not), laws regarding registration, voter IDs and felony convictions, along with state-sanctioned gerrymandering and poor ballot design, have all contributed to low voter turnout among minority groups.
Following this presentation, Council Member Ben Kallos delivered a keynote speech on the changes to voting in the 2020 election, writ large by the pandemic. He stressed the importance of collaborating with architects and designers to expand access to equitable voting spaces and locations.
Next, the cohort explored how the design of the built environment can contribute significantly to civic electoral participation. While policy remains at the core of voter turnout, there are many other aspects of the voting process that can be reconsidered and redesigned to encourage better participation. The design of voting spaces should lift elections to higher functionality and inject voters with a feeling of civic pride.
As architects, high-impact interventions include elevating voting location access, developing strategies to decrease waiting durations, and improving the quality of the physical voting environment. Although it is the local election board’s responsibility to oversee the specifics of voting spaces, the design community has a substantial opportunity to advise on guiding principles to improve these spaces.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also turned our attention to health and safety protocols in the organization and operation of our voting process. As of 2020, voters now have more options like increased early in-person and mail-in voting and the use of nontraditional voting locations like stadiums and arts venues, which provide conditions to ensure that voters can cast their ballots in a safe, spacious, and convenient environment.
Striving to facilitate a barrier-free voter experience is critical to promoting participation. The design approach must go beyond the recommended guidelines for coronavirus-responsiveness, ultimately optimizing the operation, organization, and procedures of these environments. The act of voting is often an unfamiliar, infrequent task that takes place in a foreign environment; design must aim to provide psychological assurances and clarity for all.
With the goal of examining and debating how both the physical and digital design of voting spaces can influence voter turnout and improve voter experience, we were joined by:
- Eric Spencer, Assoc. AIA, Development Director at Ennead Architects and Democratic District Leader, 73rd District Part C
- Xamayla Rose, Deputy Public Advocate of Civic & Community Empowerment, Office of the NYC Public Advocate
- Brian Miller, Executive Director of Nonprofit VOTE
- Gretchen A. Macht, PhD, Assistant Professor and Director of the University of Rhode Island Voter Operations & Election Systems (URI VOTES)
In addition to discussing the design of voting spaces, panelists explored the impact of grassroots outreach efforts and operational improvements in the time leading up to election days. To cap the discussion, we asked each panelist what they wished they could tell a room of architects who might want to get involved in the voting process. Responses included building in voter registration opportunities when working on residential development projects, reaching out to elected officials to inform them of design issues and propose solutions, and supporting voting administrators to understand how to best set up voting space.
Design interventions in voting spaces must address expansive and complex challenges and, most importantly, encourage an appreciation for participation in the voting process. It is our role, both as architects and as citizens to increase civic participation by reconceptualizing design’s engagement with our democracy.