Alexandra Lange | Essays

Knolling Your Polling Place

Tom Sachs, “Always Be Knolling,” from Ten Bullets II (via Imprint)

Many of you are familiar with artist Tom Sachs’s video, #8 in his Ten Bullets series, “Always Be Knolling.” To knoll, inspired by the sort it out, line it up aesthetic of Florence Knoll’s office interiors and Herbert Matter’s Knoll graphics, is to eliminate the unnecessary, group by purpose, and arrange at 90 degrees. Designers do it all the time, and, in my experience, largely unconsciously. I’m looking down at my own desk now: phone and calendar, stacked, on the left. Pad and Post-Its, parallel, on the right. Laptop and screen, center. Books for future projects, stacked by topic, on a nearby surface.

Tom Sachs, “#8: Always Be Knolling,” dir. by Van Neistat.

As I exited my polling place last Tuesday, Sachs’s video suddenly popped into my head. While waiting in line for 45 minutes, I’d exchanged a couple of tweets with Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times. “All the talk of lines and snafus at the polls makes me think our electoral architecture is about as sturdy as our infrastructure,” he wrote. “I don't think it rises to the level of architecture. It's just stuff in a room,” I responded. He was mock-alarmed: “Alexandra, is that you? or have you been hacked? ‘Just stuff in a room’?”

I vote in the gym of the nineteenth-century brick school down my block, and indeed, it did look like stuff in a room. (Images of other polling places, other frustrations here.) Rectangular folding tables arranged roughly, but not exactly, in a line perpendicular to the door. Poll workers sitting on both long sides of the table, so that the queues snaked from the entrance toward their short ends. Signs saying which district each table corresponded to hung from those ends, hence illegible when there was a queue. No signs for A-L, M-Z. On the left side of the line of tables, another irregular row of mini-voting booths. We use the scanned paper ballots now, so we vote standing at high, spider-like desks. Pens are attached and privacy provided by white phalanges.

New York City’s official ballot for 2012 (courtesy Mark Lamster)

Our ballot has directions on one side, bubble voting on the other, and the candidates’ names rendered in a narrow, hard-to-read font that my Twitter follower Michael Johnson quickly identified for me as Engenbrechtre. I heard several elderly people complaining that they couldn’t read the names. After bubbling, you had to cross back between the tables, and cut the lines of waiting voters, to get to the two vote scanners. Which way to hold the ballot to maintain privacy, up or down? I am suspicious of machines, like the ballot scanners, that require a full-time attendant. Then back past the line, back out the door.

So yes, just stuff, and a lot of grumpy people, in a room. There are larger problems with New York City voting, but at the micro level, polling place by polling place, I believe knolling could turn that stuff into an architecture and save a lot of people a lot of time. First there is the question of triage. A single poll worker stood at the door of the school, asking people which district they needed to vote in and leading them, sometimes by the hand, to the appropriate line. This seemed to be on his own initiative. But why couldn’t he have a phone with a quick look-up app for people who can’t remember their district? (Mine is 39, and I have to look it up every time.) Why couldn’t there be a large map of the immediate neighborhood, with districts marked?

Voter's Choice Classic Voting Booth, $119.95 (via Print Elect)

Next, someone needs to make the call about whether it is a single line, or district-by-district lines. I nominate the Trader Joe’s line managers, who know more than most about corralling and channeling frustrated New Yorkers. Those long tables need to be lined up to face the door, so that voters approach them from the front, A-L on the left, M-Z on the right. Overhead district numbers would help. What about flags when a worker is ready for the next person? Once processed, the voter should take her ballot and move through the tables to a parallel line of voting desks. Steps one and two, made clear through arrangement.

Those desks bother me in their spindliness. The hieratic photos of elections past typically show the old booths lined up around the edge of a school gym, empty floor stretching before them. The booths had an architecture, despite their revealing short curtains, and there was satisfaction in the sound of the lever recording your vote, the plaid curtain popping open. Who decided they needed to be so high, no lightweight? The attached pens remind me of the old way of deposits at the bank, filling out the carbons, now thoroughly outmoded. A taller person walking by could easily see my bubbles.

An election worker checked voting booths at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights during the June 2012 congressional primaries. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Step three. The scanners should be in a third row, behind the desks. Turn around, step up, feed it in. Without a trek, or human interference. Then back around the perimeter to the door, without crossing any queues. We need to focus the same attention on the arrangement of voting as we do on its constituent parts. The ballots, the desks, the signage need improvement, but so does the flow. If the Barclays Center can turn to Disney to train its workers, couldn’t the Board of Elections get an assist from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods?

Don’t get me started on knolling the bake sale.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Infrastructure, Media, Politics, Social Good

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