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Why Philly has more than 800 polling places and why some are just, well, strange

Places where Philly voters cast their ballots include restaurants, barber shops, offices, a yoga studio, and the Mummers Museum.

Tio, the Pekingese puppy, situates himself between Elivira Pruiti, left and John Pruiti, as his masters vote in South Philadelphia in the primary election.
Tio, the Pekingese puppy, situates himself between Elivira Pruiti, left and John Pruiti, as his masters vote in South Philadelphia in the primary election.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

A church, a cafe, and a hair salon are just a few of the establishments along the 4800 block of Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia's Cedar Park neighborhood.

Most days, it's business as usual. Churchgoers and community members file in and out of Calvary United Methodist Church, while some fuel up on caffeine at Gold Standard Cafe. Others check into their appointments at Hair Vyce Studio.

But come Election Day, it'll be voters marching in and out of the Cedar Park spots sporting "I Voted" stickers instead. All three, while close in proximity, are polling locations, serving Divisions 1, 17, and 9 in Philly's 46th Ward.

They're just three of many locations. Philadelphia has 1,692 divisions in 66 wards, with voters heading to 829 polling places around the city (some polling locations serve multiple divisions), said City Commissioner Al Schmidt. That might sound like a lot, but it's no mistake. It's the city's mission to make polling locations easy to get to.

"I think it's more than average just because we value accessibility and keeping polling places as close to people's homes as possible," Schmidt said, adding, "We want to avoid lines as much as possible."

While it may not be true for every neighborhood — such as some in the Northeast — those without physical disabilities are usually able to walk to their polling place. For those who can't, there are options. Uber and Lyft will offer free or discounted rides to polling locations on Election Day.

Indego is also offering free day passes for its bicycles on Election Day to help voters get to the polls.

It's the desire for polling locations to be close to home, coupled with the city's age and the need for polling spots to be handicapped-accessible, that makes some of the locations a bit unconventional.

Churches and community centers are common — but places like Gold Standard and Vyce may give some voters pause. The city's list of polling locations for the 2018 general election also lists Lee's Hoagie House, the Mummers Museum, the Painted Bride, auto-repair garages, people's home garages, barber shops and salons, restaurants and cafes, a yoga studio, and offices.

If the city can't modify a more traditional polling location to make it wheelchair-accessible — like by adding a ramp — it can either move the polling place into a neighboring division or move it "to a location that might seem a little odd," Schmidt said. Private businesses or residences get compensated $110 per division.

"One way or another, we go from our most desired location down until we find one that's both wheelchair-accessible and in or next to the home division," Schmidt said.

But that's not something limited to Philly. It comes as part of being in a city, particularly an old city, he said.

"I'm sure New England is the same way, but certainly in the mid-Atlantic, with older cities that are largely built before there was any consideration toward wheelchair accessibility, and in some neighborhoods, especially densely populated neighborhoods, it's very difficult for us to find places that are wheelchair-accessible," Schmidt said.

Local news outlets have highlighted Philly's oddest polling locations, and polling places in Philadelphia are often included in national roundups of the "weirdest" or most "unusual." But a tractor barn in Iowa, a barber school in Chicago, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York also appear on those lists. Even some United Kingdom voters have found themselves at a pub or cafe in the past, according to the Mirror newspaper in London.

"We have a polling place department, and we have more precincts in Chicago than they do in all of Iowa," Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, told the Chicago Tribune in 2015. "So this is a big job."

For Joseph Oh, the owner of Gold Standard Cafe, who inherited the tradition from the restaurant's previous owners about three years ago, it's no trouble.

He said he's forced to close Gold Standard's dining area, the main part of the business, while a front cafe is still open for coffee and food. It's a hit, but one he doesn't mind taking.

"One of the things we liked about taking over was that … we can somehow give a little back to the community," he said. "And obviously we don't do as much sales, but I think for one day, for us, it's a pleasure to do that."

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