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For Many In San Francisco, Home Is Where The Polling Place Is

Voting in your neighbor’s garage is the norm for thousands of people in California’s fourth largest city

On Tuesday, most U.S. voters will head to schools, churches, government offices, and community centers to cast their ballots. But that’s not how it works in San Francisco.

Of the city’s 576 polling places, 179 are public buildings—schools, rec centers, firehouses—while 397 are considered private. Of those 397, almost half fall into the category of “Garage,” meaning the place your dad keeps all his junk is actually the place where thousands of citizens will cast their vote for the next president of the United States.

While most of the country would find voting at private residences to be a foreign concept, in San Francisco it’s essential. By law, a single voting precinct in California can’t hold more than 1,000 voters, and that can become troublesome, considering some of the city’s precincts are as small as a single square block, according to Andy Pastalaniec, manager of precinct services division for San Francisco’s Department of Elections.

”Anne and myself have run the election from our garage the last 16 years," says Peter Herbst of his garage voting booth.

In contrast to parts of California that have plenty of cars and suburban parking lots, San Francisco suffers from a parking shortage, and many of its residents walk or take public transit to get around. As Pastalaniec explains:

“We like to provide a level of service where folks can simply walk down the street to their local polling place, which, given the density of San Francisco, means that we have to rely on whatever facilities are available within voting precincts.”

If those small precincts don’t have enough buildings where residents can vote, Precinct Services turns to private residences. The three families featured below have heeded the call for polling places and explain why they are willing to offer up their sacred family dens and garages in the name of democracy.

Ruth Bernstein, Glen Park

For 15 of the 23 years that Ruth Bernstein has lived in San Francisco, her home has been a polling place. She shares the two-story duplex with her husband, Matthew, their two kids, ages 17 and 20, and Matthew’s aunt. “The elections department put a notice in our mailbox—I guess they did it with a bunch of houses—and said, ‘We’re looking for polling places. Are you willing to use your garage as a polling place?’ and we said, ‘Of course, we’d love to!’ because we’re crazy like that,” says Bernstein.

When Bernstein first heard of polling places at private homes, she found it unusual—just like some of her friends and family do. “We get a lot of reactions from other people, like when we post it on Facebook or something,” she says. “People are like, ‘Wait, what? You vote in a garage?’ but it’s pretty common in San Francisco.”

On Election Day, Bernstein will open the garage for the poll workers at 6 a.m. and will probably offer them coffee, she says. “Sometimes we’ll go out and get doughnuts, or we’ll bring cookies. We don’t feed them all day, but we do usually try to bring things.”

Amy Gurvitz, an East Bay resident whose family used to live next door to Bernstein, enjoyed the convenience of a neighborhood voting place. "If by chance anyone who lived on our street had forgotten an election was approaching, the porta-potty that appeared outside our neighbor's house a few days before every election always served as a reminder. Living literally three seconds from my polling place was worth the trade-off of having an outhouse outside our front door.”

Leah Whitta, the Sunset

This election is the first in which Leah Whitta’s family will open their garage to voters, but they’re prepared. They’ve cleaned out the garage and trimmed back plants in the front yard, and they have sidewalk chalk and bubbles on hand for voters’ kids. They’ll remove their political signs, make sure the bathroom is fully stocked for the poll workers’ use, and provide them with food purchased with some of the $180 they received for volunteering their home.

Whitta, who lives with her husband, Gary, and their four-year-old daughter, says she would have liked to volunteer as a poll worker in addition to hosting a polling place, but it’s not possible this year. “I would have loved to do it, but I just can’t hire childcare from seven in the morning to eight at night.”

Even though neither Whitta nor her husband will serve as a poll worker on Tuesday, some have expressed worries about their safety. “There were a couple of people who were concerned because of how stressful this election has been and how divided people are,” she says. “But I mean, it’s San Francisco! People are pretty open-minded.”

Whitta is eager to share Election Day with her daughter. “It’s good to let her see that process and see that people are into it—that it really is something meaningful that people are doing and they’re putting the effort in,” she says. “They’re going and standing in line and waiting so that their ideas are heard, and I think it’s really important for her to see that.”

Claudine Ryan, Noe Valley

On their first Election Day hosting a polling place, Claudine Ryan, her husband, Sean, and their three sons had a rude awakening—literally—when poll workers arrived at 5:30 a.m. “They hadn’t set up the night before,” she says. “They woke us up, they woke up the dog, the kids, everyone.” Since then, the family has given their garage-door code to the poll workers, who usually set up the voting area the night before, and Claudine posts a sign asking them not to ring the doorbell. “We’ve got it down to a science at this point because we’ve been doing it for so many years.”

One exception to that smooth routine involved an errant political sign. For each election, they have dutifully taken down campaign signs at their home—except for the primary this June, when they forgot to remove a sign supporting state Senate candidate Scott Wiener, says Ryan. “Someone noticed and reminded us, and the elections person who was in my garage was frantically calling me at work trying to figure out how to get into our house to get it.”

Something that can’t be avoided by planning ahead is the family dog’s reaction to his home being used by strangers all day. “Our dog is a crazy barker,” says Ryan. “He takes his job really seriously and he barks all day long because it makes him completely crazy that he’s hearing all these people down below. He starts the minute that they open the garage in the morning and he goes until 8 o’clock at night. But it’s totally fine—we’re so happy to be able to do it that it doesn’t really matter.”

She adds, “It’s nice to be able to give back to the community and feel a little closer to your neighborhood. People know us as, ‘Oh, you’re the house with the voting precinct!’”

While San Franciscans are accustomed to voting at neighbors’ garages, the number of Americans who vote in private homes is so small that a major voter survey in 2014 didn’t bother listing that possibility among potential answers to the question, “How would you describe the place where you voted?” except to provide a response labeled “Other.” Nationwide, the answers in the “Other” category made up just 5.8 percent of the total.

Just as voting at private residences has been falling out of favor, so has in-person voting on Election Day. Americans are increasingly turning to early voting and voting by mail, and San Francisco is no exception: On November 5, with two full days remaining before the election, @SFElections tweeted that 152,195 of 513,385 registered voters had already returned their ballots.

As Election Day voting becomes less common and the role of technology in elections grows, the days of voting in private homes may be numbered. But first-time polling place host Leah Whitta is enjoying the moment. “I think it’ll actually be pretty fun,” she says. “I don’t know how voting is where you are, but here, everybody gets super into it. Neighbors are chatting with each other, people are excited—it feels more personal, more of a community thing, when you’re voting in someone’s house.”

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