In the 2016 general election, voters of Kansas City within Jackson County had 149 in-person polling places.
But this Election Day, there will be 77.
Before the June election this year, the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners decided to change the locations and reduce the number of in-person polling places. The goal? To have enough election judges available and include larger polling sites for more social distancing.
But reduced polling locations could make transportation more difficult and disproportionately affects voters in historically low-turnout areas, advocates say. KCEB officials say they’ve tried to make voting easier by allowing any voter in Kansas City within Jackson County to use a ballot-marking device to vote from a polling place other than the one they are assigned. On Election Day, anyone registered to vote within Kansas City, Missouri, in Jackson County can vote at any of KCEB’s polling places.
The KCEB also recently announced a new polling site at Arrowhead Stadium that has no voters assigned to it but can service any of their voters. Additionally, many local Kansas City organizations, such as Communities Creating Opportunities — and national ones, like Bird — are supporting free transportation options for voters.
“It’s important for individuals, organizations, governments to create these avenues of making voting easier for low-income voters and persons in areas with low turnout,” said Garrett Griffin, communications director for Communities Creating Opportunity, an organization that focuses on neighborhood organizing for racial justice and social change, including in civic engagement.
“The low turnout is a direct result and a direct effect of real societal problems and real political failures.”
Getting to the polls: Easier said than done
The change of polling places could affect the distance between voters and their assigned voting location. Although there are fewer polling sites overall this year, The Beacon’s analysis of a map comparing 2016 and 2020 locations shows the difference is starkest in southern and northeastern Kansas City.
“The closing of polling sites is going to be potentially disastrous,” Griffin said. “Across the country, whether it’s due to COVID or efforts at voter suppression, polling sites have been closed to many low-income, minority areas.”
And in Kansas City, areas with historically low voter turnout coincide with lower incomes, Griffin said, which “has to be part of the conversation.”
During the 2016 election, a Pew Research report found more than half of nonvoters reported family incomes below $30,000, and nonvoters were more likely to be people of color.
“Low-income persons — some don’t have vehicles, some persons live far away from their polling places and some have disabilities and are unable to walk a couple of miles to get to their polling places. And some people live at a great distance from public transit,” Griffin said.
Lack of transportation to the polls can especially affect young people. In the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections, 29% of young people under 30 who registered but did not vote said transportation was a reason why they didn’t vote. Lack of transportation affected young people of color more — 38% cited lack of transportation as a reason for not voting.
While options such as mail-in ballots and absentee voting don’t require going to the polls in person on Election Day, the majority of Kansas City’s registered voters will likely still be voting on Election Day. KCEB says that 38,500 voters have voted via early absentee as of Oct. 30, and Kansas City has over 200,000 registered voters.
Although KCEB has reduced the number of polls, voters who may have trouble reaching their polling site this year have some new options.
For the first time, Arrowhead Stadium will open as a central polling place. Any voter with an address within Kansas City, Missouri, and in Jackson County can vote at the stadium.
The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority will provide free express bus service from the KCATA East Village Transit Center at 12th and Charlotte to Arrowhead Stadium throughout the day.
As long as voters do not require a paper ballot, they can vote at any polling place within the KCEB’s jurisdiction.
“If someone stays in a long line and by chance, they get to the front and someone says, ‘Oh sorry, you need to go down the street,’ they can elect at that time to vote on our ballot-marking devices,” said Shawn Kieffer, the Republican director of the KCEB.
The ballot-marking device is the same one used by voters with disabilities. Kieffer said the paper for the ballot is thinner, but the process is the same. Voters can make their selections on the screen, print out the paper, double-check it, and insert the ballot into the same machine as the other ballots.
Christopher McKinney, founder of VoteKC, a nonpartisan coalition that helps provide Kansas Citians with information they need to vote, emphasizes the importance of Kansas City voters being motivated to get to the polls on Election Day.
“Democracy requires our participation if it’s going to work,” he said. “This is really about being a citizen in a democracy. It’s not just what’s on the ballot.”
Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. You can reach Brittany at email@example.com. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.
Resources: How to get to the polls for free or
Kansas City voters will have several free or discounted options using different modes of transportation to get to the polls on Election Day. VoteKC recommends people taking public transit or carpooling wear a mask and use hand sanitizer. Polls in Missouri will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 3. Voters who are still in line at 7 p.m. can still cast a ballot.
- Communities Creating Opportunity is releasing a free app called Election Riders on Nov. 1. The app, similar to Uber or Lyft, allows voters who live in ZIP codes 64109, 64127, 64128, 64130 and 64132 to request a ride on Election Day. People who do not have smartphones will also be able to call Election Riders at 816-221-0556.
- Public transit through RideKC is free due to the pandemic, and all polling places in Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties will be included in their app,
- To get to Arrowhead Stadium: Voters can take a KCATA free express bus from the KCATA East Village Transit Center at 12th and Charlotte to Arrowhead Stadium throughout the day. Nearly 20 other bus routes can take voters to the East Village Transit Center express bus pickup location. The shuttle will be running every 30 minutes between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m.
- RideKC Bike is offering two free bike rides on Election Day to users who use the code BIKETHEVOTE20 in the RideKC Bike app.
- The Whole Person is offering rides by appointment to their polling site on Election Day.
- Electric scooter company Bird is offering one free 30-minute ride for users who use the code VOTE2020 on Election Day.
- Voters over the age of 55 can request a free ride to the polls via limo through the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association.
- Ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft will be offering discounted rides to and from the polls on Election Day.