Locations for people to go and register their vote is a mainstay of the democratic function of many civilizations and the museum sector has traditionally played its part in that role. This is certainly the case in the United States where tax-exempt institutions are often used as polling places. However, according to recent reports, many of the museums and public institutions in New York City that have provided polling stations in the past refused to do so again in 2019, prompting speculation that this is a trend that may be on the rise.
Among the well-known institutions that filed objections to being nominated as polling places in the city were the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. The Shed, a performing arts venue and gallery in Manhattan also claimed that it would not be possible for it to serve as a place for people to vote. In all, some 52 different institutions across the city found reasons to avoid acting as polling places, according to an article published by the Gothamist. The Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the Bronx Museum and the New York Historical Society, based in the Upper West side of Manhattan Island, all declined to serve in this way. In addition, the famous performing arts complex, the Lincoln Center, also filed reasons to avoid what many Americans see as a public duty among tax-exempt organisations.
A Legal Duty
According to New York State’s election laws, any building that is exempt from taxation can be used as a polling place. Section 4-104 of the election regulations state that they can be used “whenever possible” so long as the institution’s building is located in the same or a neighbouring district. It seems that most of the museums and galleries included on the Gothamist’s list are using the fact that their building should host a polling place only ‘whenever’ it is possible as a loophole to avoid them altogether.
The state of New York’s election rules also stipulate that public institution can register an objection to being designated as a voting location if hosting the polling place would “unreasonably interfere” with the sort of activities that usually go on there. This rule applies to most tax-exempt institutions with the exemption of public schools which have no right to object. The Gothamist’s report makes it apparent that many of the most famous galleries and museums in the city are using the objection rules as a matter of course to routinely avoid serving as places for voters to attend.
A Widespread Practice?
According to the report into the issue of polling places, the reasons cited for requesting an exemption from serving as a voter location were something of a mixed bag. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art said allowing its prime site in the heart of Manhattan on Fifth Avenue as a polling site would mean that it suffered “extreme hardship”, something that may stretch the idea of what constitutes hardship somewhat. Equally, the New York Historical Society said that it would not be able to provide a polling place service for the state because it had already scheduled “major events” at the time when voting would take place. The society claimed that hundreds of people would be let down because the dates of the primary and general elections in 2019 clashed with its plans.
According to the Gothamist, the society’s filed objection stated that hosting the voter location would mean providing unimpeded access to the organisation’s entire first floor as well as much of the rest of the building. Despite this objection, a representative for the society said that she hoped the museum might be reconsidered as a polling place in the future because providing voting locations lined up with the society’s mission as a public institution.
According to an opinion piece in the New York Post, the reasons given by many of the galleries and museums to the state of New York’s electoral authorities are flimsy at best. “The Met and many of the rest [of the museums concerned]… are huge,” it stated. “It would not be that tough for most of them to dedicate one entrance as a voting area,” it continued. “If it is such a heavy burden for them, then they’re free to give up their tax break.”
“New Yorkers need to be able to vote in their locality,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a letter sent to the Commissioners of Elections in the state. Writing in April 2019, he said that a handful of inconvenient sites in each borough was simply not enough. In 2020, which marks the centenary of the 19th Amendment to the US constitution – which allowed women to vote for the first time – many political commentators will have their eyes on how museums and galleries in the city respond to requests to serve as polling places in upcoming elections.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.