"Intermingling of Church and State," Boise, Idaho, anonymous photographer, 2006.
I have voted in over twenty elections, including national, state and local elections. Two times I voted by absentee ballot from Europe. I have voted in three states. I have voted in public high schools, university dining halls, municipal buildings and, in recent years, at town hall in Falls Village, Connecticut. In my many years of voting, however, I never noticed, or no one told me, that people across America, perhaps millions of citizens, are voting in churches and synagogues (and I assume mosques and other places of worship).
Apparently, I didn't get the memo.
Ballot boxes beneath pictures of Jesus? Voting booths surrounded by Hebrew texts? The walk towards a polling place framed by a steeple? This must seem incredibly naive, but it never entered my mind that people actually vote in churches: it would seem that the separation of Church and State would by definition preclude such locations. After all, every holiday season we have news about towns banning Santa Claus and Christmas trees, or preventing a memorah in the town square, or restricting nativity crèches in schools.
The reality, contrary to my perception, is that millions vote in religious settings all across the country, casting this important act of citizenry in distinctly non-secular environments.
This past September we spearheaded the Polling Place Photo Project, sponsored by AIGA, Design for Democracy and NewAssignment.net. Many Design Observer readers contributed photographs, and the site has since become a valuable archive of visual and documentary evidence — among other things, we now know a little more about where, when and how many people stand in line to vote. (We also captured data on ballot type.)
My surprise is not against religion in general, nor against any religion in particular. (And, during this holiday season, I hope my observation will not generate anti-religious or pro-religious blog banter.) There are many observations, themes and conclusions to be drawn from looking at the hundreds of photographs in the the Polling Place Photo Project. That millions of Americans vote in religious places of worship is simply a documented observation — albeit a surprising one to this writer.
Not long after we moved to the country, we made our first trip to town hall to vote in a national election. There were signs outside: Democrats to the left, Republicans to the right. We entered town hall only to find that both doors opened into the same large room. Since this wasn't a primary, there was only one ballot. At the time, I remember wondering whether this was even legal. And, since I seldom receive political flyers except from my party, my political orientation must have been visually established by the door I entered. Or, that's what I've always thought about my first vote cast in this small village, even as town hall has moved and we now all enter the front door.
The act of voting is not simply an act of pulling the lever, or using an optical scanner. It is an individual experience informed by weather, signage, instructions, and yes — location, location, location. That certain public locations provide space for Americans to exercise their legal right to vote is wonderful. That so many of them happen to also be places of worship — that most un-public of private activities — is just weird.