By Rachel Christian
The Osceola County Supervisor of Elections office is facing a complex problem this year. Fueled in part by rapid population growth and a divisive political atmosphere, officials say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find polling locations.
“At one time, hosting a polling location was seen as part of your civic duty.
That is not the case anymore,” Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington told County Commissioners Monday at a budget review meeting.
Arrington added that aggressive and disruptive behavior by candidates and voters is making it challenging to convince private places to open their doors for elections.
It turns out to be just one of the obstacles impacting voting accessibility in Osceola County.
Creating homes, not polling places
More than 76,000 people vote in Osceola County now than they did in 2008, according to the Florida Department of State, Division of Elections.
The challenge in Osceola County is finding polling places near new residents without overburdening existing spots.
A prime example is the Knights of Columbus on Neptune Road, said Arrington. The social club has served as a ballot-casting spot for years, but residents from new single-family home subdivisions are flooding the location.
That’s because there’s nowhere else nearby suitable for the job.
“Many homes are being constructed, but not buildings that can serve as polling locations,” Arrington said. “So, you have more residents going to the same place because the right kind of facility doesn’t exist in their neighborhoods.”
Not all facilities can be polling locations, and venues must meet certain basic requirements. It must be large enough (at least 2,000 square feet), feature ample parking and be wheelchair and ADA accessible.
Even when the right venues do exist, they are sometimes clustered in one place. For example, Poinciana Christian Church, a fire station, the Valencia Poinciana campus and a school are all within walking distance of each other.
“That doesn’t really help us,” Arrington said. “The idea is to spread out more evenly in the community.”
Divisive politics, safety concerns
Churches were once one of the most dependable polling locations, Arrington said.
But in recent years, she’s seen participation drop. She attributes this in part to safety concerns.
People seem to be more worried, she said, about a continuous flow of traffic in and out of their facility. Deadly shootings in the news have people on edge, Arrington said, and it can be a hard sell convincing places like schools to let strangers inside to vote.
“You don’t have to do a background check to vote,” Arrington said. “People are concerned about who’s coming on property.”
Political tensions outside of polling locations have also made some people apprehensive. Arrington said police were called to polling places at least three times in Osceola County during the 2016 election.
“Civility doesn’t seem to be what it used to be,” she said. “Candidates and voters often can’t seem to get along, and it’s not uncommon for arguments to break out between people of
Arrington urged commissioners to “think of us” as new government buildings are created in Osceola County.
Adding spacious spare rooms at fire stations that could double as public safety classrooms is a way local government can keep voting accessible, she said.
Voters can also lend a helping hand by voting early or voting by mail. About 70 percent of voters went with one of these options in the 2016 election, Arrington said. Doing so cuts down on hassle and stress for both residents and poll workers on Election Day.
“It’s called ‘convenience voting’ for a reason,” Arrington said.