Why Museums Should Be Proud Polling Sites

The head of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site calls upon his colleagues to engage with their community by opening their doors to voting

The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis (Courtesy of the BHPS)
smithsonian.com

On a sweltering August morning in Washington, D.C., I found myself indoors at a conference of other heads of presidential sites and libraries, within a stone's throw of the White House, asking 100 of my peers a simple question with profound implications: "How many of you are currently serving as a polling site?"

A brief and uncomfortable silence ensued.

Scanning the room not a hand was raised in response, but in that moment one could see a look of startled awareness sweeping across my colleagues' faces: "Why aren't we doing this already?!"

The journey of my museum, the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis, as a polling site had started four years earlier with another simple question, asked innocently enough of staff: “Have we ever served as a polling site?”

When it became apparent we hadn't, we called our election board. Our offer elicited confusion, as they thought we were trying to get out of being one currently. Having clarified that we were indeed willing to start serving, the response was as revealing as it was surprising: “Well, no one ever asks to be a polling site.”

Much to the credit of our local election officials, they recognized the opportunity and moved forward immediately with the certification process. As a result, we have served in this capacity since May 2015.

It was a mutually beneficial decision, and has reinvigorated our institutional commitment to civic engagement and helped us better understand how we can measurably and authentically engage our community—not some broad, generic group, but literally those inhabitants who live adjacent to our facility in the heart of our dense, diverse, and bustling city. We've seen our fellow Hoosiers living their daily lives, but this gave us new insight into how they’re living their civic lives.

Does it matter where someone votes—whether it be in a school, a car auction warehouse, a sports stadium, a retirement community, or a nationally significant historic space, all places where I’ve voted? Or if they submit their ballot in fire and police stations, churches, schools, community centers, or libraries—all popular polling sites?

Enormous national effort has been made in recent years to encourage voter registration and turnout, but not as much thought or care appears to have gone into the civic obligation of individual institutions, organizations and trusted community spaces to serve as polling locations. Considering how much the museum field prides itself as acting in the public trust, it seems a strange oversight that comparatively few of our institutions are meeting this vital civic need.

In an era where turnout is far from peak levels, and debate simmers over mechanisms like early voting and mail-in balloting, could museums be doing more to help the general public as they're seeking to meet their civic obligations?

To my mind, here are five reasons why museums should proudly serve as a polling site:

  • Awareness: As a place where communities already convene, museums tend to have higher awareness levels than public service locations like a police station or a church.
  • Accessibility: Museums tend to already be ADA-compliant and optimized to welcome diverse audiences.
  • Mutual benefit: Museums can demonstrate their commitment to equity, accessibility, and non-partisan civic engagement without a significant cost to their bottom line.
  • Lead by example: Want good citizens in your community? Model good civic behavior. No one is satisfied today with the injunction to "do as I say, not as I do."
  • Call to action: A federal judge once told me that as a presidential site, we have special permission, if not a special obligation, to call people to their civic duty. The charge applies to all of us as educational organizations, whether our day-to-day work engages us in art, science, or the humanities. Civics is central to all disciplines in the end. Serving as a polling site is one of many expressions of civic leadership on a spectrum of engagement we seek to foster.

In 2017, we partnered with the IUPUI School for Public and Environmental Affairs to better understand the implications of serving as a polling site. Initial findings were encouraging, with primary and general election voter turnout increasing against citywide numbers since we began serving as a polling site. Most dramatically, the museum’s precinct in 2016 outperformed citywide turnout by six percentage points, compared to the prior presidential election cycle, when the precinct’s voting trailed citywide numbers by more than two percentage points. We’re still studying the reasons behind this swing, but the initial data gives reason for excitement.

***

In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison made a 10,000 mile train trip, crisscrossing the country from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. He used the extraordinary journey to try to bring together a fractured country, still grappling with the fallout of the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction. Harrison sought to demonstrate the larger potential of a country united in mind and purpose, and to speak in good faith to a people unified by their common rights and uniform enforcement of the law rather than divided by regional jealousies or sectional strife.

As he said on his trip:

The people may not agree in their views on public questions, but while they have a great many points of difference they have more of agreement and I believe we are all pursuing the same great end—the glory of our country, the permanency of our institutions and the general good of our people..."

This idea of a “same great end” is at the heart of the greater role we serve as a museum and as a presidential site. Voting in the home of a former U.S. president has a special resonance, and we’re proud to be a polling site.

Museums should do their part—whatever the inspiration—to help increase public participation in the American system of self-government. Other museums already serve as polling sites, including the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

I encourage other museums engaging in this act of civic responsibility to use the social media hashtag #proudpollingsite and prove that together, we can provide our communities with the enhanced experiences that cultivate a more engaged citizenry. It’s about time we all raised our hands.

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