Section 3: Key Election Process Categories Polling Stations

Polling Stations

What is a polling station?

Polling stations are a fundamental unit of elections. Polling stations are the unit to which individual voters are assigned for election day. More specifically, voters are usually placed on the registration list for a specific polling station. As the place where voters are assigned to vote, polling stations are the building blocks for the casting and counting of votes. Typically, several adjacent polling stations make up a larger geographic and electoral district (see Electoral Boundaries). As a general principle, the number and location of polling stations should take into consideration the geographic distribution of the voting population. For example, there should be (relatively) more polling stations in densely populated areas, such as urban centers, than in more sparsely-populated, rural areas. In most countries, the polling station is the level at which the ballots are counted and the results are entered into the official results form. Thus, the process at the polling station is the first step in the overall tabulation process and it is often the most granular level for results.

Polling stations are also the physical voting location to which voters go to cast their vote. Election management bodies (EMBs) should create clear procedures for choosing, setting up, and supplying polling stations with the materials for voting. Polling stations should make the voting process accessible to all citizens, including persons with disabilities. In order to make sure that people who cannot travel to a polling station have the chance to vote, EMBs often provide special polling stations or mobile voting to accommodate these voters. For example, mobile ballot boxes and ballots may be brought to people who cannot leave their homes because of illness.

Why do polling stations matter?

Polling stations are a main focal point for many key parts of the election process. Polling stations are grouped together within electoral boundaries to determine representation. They often serve as registration centers during voter registration. Polling stations are where voters are assigned to cast their ballot on election day. They are typically the place at which the votes are counted and entered into the official results sheet. Thus, polling stations are also the fundamental “unit of analysis” for an individual or group seeking to assess the process and its outcomes.

An inadequate number, or unequal distribution, of polling stations can limit the ability of some citizens to participate. As the physical location where voting takes place, polling stations must be accessible, properly staffed and have the relevant materials for election day. If polling stations do not have enough supplies or materials, such as ballots, then some eligible voters may be denied their right to vote. The proper set-up helps avoid chaos or over-crowding, and can help make sure voting is smooth and orderly. Information about where polling stations are located and when they operate is critical to allowing citizens to participate on election day. For any groups – nonpartisan or partisan – looking to observe the election, access to data about polling stations ahead of election day is crucial to designing plans for observation.

Many election monitoring groups aim to deploy observers in ways that are proportional to the distribution of polling stations in order to get a more representative picture of the election across the country, so knowing in advance where polling stations are located is critical. Civic groups, political parties and media can also use information about polling stations to identify any deficiencies in the geographical distribution, number or accessibility of polling stations. Information about polling station materials and set-up allows civil society organizations or political parties to evaluate aspects of the voting process on election day, recording both positive and negative observations.

Example polling station data

Prior to election day, the EMB should release data relating to all of the individual polling stations, which might include each address, notes or directions, contact information for election commission staff, latitude and longitude coordinates, names and titles of electoral officials for that station and the unit to which its reports (e.g., district number and names and positions of the district electoral officials), date of formation and duration of existence, number of voting streams or “tables” (if applicable)1, number of registered voters and the maximum number of registered voters per station.

The EMB should also publish general procedures for the election day process at polling stations including the setting up and supplying of polling stations. This is often outlined in pollworker manuals. Relevant information might include the hours of operation, lay-out inside the polling station, number of ballot boxes, flow of voters and necessary supply of voting materials like ballots and indelible ink.

  1. In some African countries, such as Malawi and Zambia, the polling station is the building that contains multiple “polling streams” or rooms where voting takes place. In many Latin American countries, the polling station may be called a voting center (a building) where each room is the tables (“mesas” in Spanish) where voters cast their vote. When we use “polling station” in this document, we mean the lowest level at which the votes are cast and counted. 

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