Like a lot of people today, Wilkinsburg resident Ashley Hedland walked to her polling place, St. James School to cast her vote. When she arrived, she looked around and couldn’t find any signage or signs of life to direct to the polling machines. She pulled out her smartphone and pulled up Allegheny County’s poll-locator website, and typed in her address.
The result said “St. James School Lobby, 718 Rebecca Ave. Wilkinsburg.” This is where the confusion set in. Both the St. James School and the attached Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy are listed at 721 Rebecca Ave, so Hedland walked across the street (she figured the even number address of 718 meant the correct location was on other side of street). After walking around an empty warehouse, talking to a neighbor walking her dog, going through a normally-locked gate, and speaking to a woman sitting in a lawn chair outside a side door, Hedland found the polling machines. She says the ordeal took her more than 15 minutes of web searching, phone-calls to family members and wandering to finally cast her vote.
“Thank God I was not in a rush, and I literally live down the street,” says Hedland.
Hedland says this quarter-hour quest to vote all stemmed from a small clerical error on the Allegheny County’s polling place locator app. The information she found gave her the technically correct address but the wrong name of the building (718 Rebecca Ave. is the address for St. James Catholic Church).
City Paper tested Allegheny County’s poll locator app and overall, it works fairly well. (For example, however, the address listed for a polling place in McKees Rocks, the Hays Manor Community Center, comes up 1.7 miles away from the actual location on a Google Maps search.)
And while this could be chalked up to the county’s quirks of having same-named roads in different locations, it doesn't make finding polling places any easier, especially for first time voters. In fact, many voters might encounter even worse problems when using the state’s official polling-place locator at votespa.com.
When CP tried to search for Hedland’s polling place, we were not even able to enter in Wilkinsburg as a borough (this problem repeated itself when trying to enter many other borough and townships, like Bellevue and McCandless). Pa. Elections Bureau spokesperson Wanda Murren says the online voting look-up system uses the exact address listed on a person’s voter registration card (the way the county entered it into the system), and won’t adjust if the user types the address slightly differently, such as typing Road instead of Rd.
“I would suggest that people try different variations with and without abbreviations,” Murren.
However, there is no suggestion to use the exact information on a voter’s registration card listed on the votespa.com website. The directions say to enter your “residential address,” but Murren says that actually corresponds more to what your mailing address is, versus what township or borough you reside.
“I do believe if it is that touchy, we should have better advertising on the website,” says Murren.
When asked if the system would be improved for the upcoming general election in November, Murrens responded with “we are always working to better our system.”
Murren says the Elections Bureau has received more than 360 called from people trying to locate their polling place today. (CP's Ashley Murray has found the Allegheny County’s Elections Division line — 412-350-4500 — to be busy through the majority of the afternoon.) Murren says the state is “happy to help people” and suggest voters call 1-877-VOTESPA (1-877-868-3772) for assistance.