Democracy glowed brightly next to potbellied stoves in one-room shacks.
Propped up on concrete blocks, wood-frame buildings with tar-paper roofs served as voting booths for the better part of the 20th century in Summit County.
The drafty, drab buildings, usually painted gray, were found on vacant lots in nearly every neighborhood. During fall elections, the booths were heated with coal-burning stoves. During warm-weather primaries, shutters were latched open to let in a breeze.
Poll workers crowded around tables in buildings about the size of one-car garages. The stations included poll books, voter lists, instructions, ballots, envelopes and ballot boxes. They lacked toilet facilities, running water, telephones and adequate heating, which meant that Election Day could be awfully uncomfortable for poll workers. When the door opened, wind, snow, rain or heat arrived with voters.
Citizens lined up outside the gray shacks and waited their turn to climb the temporary, wooden steps at the entrance.
“A voting booth is an unlovely piece of architecture,” Beacon Journal political writer H.H. Harriman wrote in a 1947 column. “Still it isn’t exactly ugly. It’s just a plain little rectangular building somewhat smaller than the country school houses of horse-and-buggy days and a little larger than the ‘Chic Sales’ of those same days.”
By Chic Sales, he was using a euphemism for outhouses. Humorist Charles “Chic” Sale was the unfortunate fellow whose name became associated with privies after he wrote a 1929 book, The Specialist, about a carpenter who specialized in building outhouses.
Considering the choices during some elections, the outhouse reference was fitting.
Akron’s first major election was held in a saloon. Whig candidate Seth Iredell defeated Democratic candidate Dr. Eliakim Crosby to become the town’s first mayor in 1836. The 91-75 vote was held in Clark’s Tavern at the northeast corner of Main and Exchange streets.
When the town’s population was a mere 1,343 people, a central polling station was convenient. As the community grew, ramshackle booths were built to serve as satellite stations.
In 1891, the Summit County Board of Elections flirted with the idea of purchasing 20 iron booths from a Buffalo company. The narrow, oval structures were clean, neat, durable and “nicely appointed.”
After thorough review, the board instead hired an Akron cabinet maker to make less-expensive wooden booths, which continued to be the norm for the next 60 years.
Each structure cost about $75 to build a century ago. The elections board adopted plans so that multiple contractors could build uniform booths.
In 1912, there was a minor scandal when Building Inspector Howard G. Goodwin halted the construction of a dozen booths because county officials forgot to obtain permits.
“The code applies to all kinds of constructions regardless of who puts them up, and the city and the state or county must comply also,” Goodwin said. “I do not wish to be unfair, or unnecessarily retard the building of these booths, but the code must be complied with.”
Each year, elections board officials had to find new locations for booths as precincts expanded or contracted. The county paid landowners $1 a month in rent to maintain the buildings on vacant lots.
As Summit County’s population exploded in the 20th century, vacant lots were harder to find. New housing took the place of old polling stations, forcing the elections board to find other locations.
Announcement of the annual changes in polling stations became almost comical. In 1923, the Beacon Journal published this update for readers:
“The booth 3-U in the rear of the Central Garage has been discontinued. Voters in that precinct will vote at 3-F, Cherry near West Market Street on the municipal parking ground.
“Precinct 6-Z, which was at Annadale and East Exchange Street, has been divided into three sections. All voters residing south of Exchange Street will vote in 5-X in the Mason school yard. Those residing east of Annadale including the east side of Annadale and north of Exchange Street will vote in 2-I on East Exchange near Cleveland Street. Those living west of Annadale including those on the west side of Annadale will vote in 2-G, Spicer north of East Exchange.”
Wooden booths arose in more than 400 precincts in the county. The elections board issued orders that local candidates had to stay at least 100 feet away from polling places because voters too often were accosted by campaign pitches. Sneaky candidates — or perhaps their scheming rivals — plastered partisan posters on outside walls before elections.
Though conveniently located, voting booths had many unexpected troubles. They often were subject to break-ins from kids looking to start clubhouses. Vagabonds picked the locks and found good places to sleep.
Potbellied stoves started fires, causing voters and poll workers to flee for their lives. Concrete chunks fell off the North Hill Viaduct and plunged through the roof of an empty voting booth on Charles Street. Heavy rains flooded streets and forced poll workers to build makeshift bridges.
The elections board repaired and painted booths to avoid paying for new ones. Following World War II, structures cost $680.
Increasingly, the elections board began to rely on schools, churches, fire stations and public buildings to house polling stations. On rare occasions, the board secured the use of private garages in densely populated neighborhoods.
In 1950, the Akron City Park Advisory Commission passed a resolution ordering the county elections board to remove all voting booths from city parks “in the furtherance of our city beautification program.”
That prompted elections board chairman Ray Bliss to fume: “City parkland is owned by the citizens and taxpayers. So are the voting booths. It seems rather trivial to quarrel about beautification.”
By the late 1950s, the tide had turned. About 280 shacks were still in use, but more than 300 polling stations had moved into public buildings. The old-style booths cost $1,200 to build, so there was a financial incentive to move voting elsewhere.
Only 125 wooden booths remained by 1972. Poll workers complained about the lack of toilets, running water, telephones and heat. In addition, old wiring created hazards.
Elections board director George Vaughan acknowledged that facilities were inadequate but said the booths were for the convenience of voters, not poll workers.
“We just have to face the fact that some people are going to have to suffer a little inconvenience for one day,” he said.
The board soon had a change of heart. Over the next two years, officials closed down the old booths. The last seven were vacated in Barberton in 1974.
Remaining structures were demolished. A few were donated to historical societies.
After more than a century of campaigning, the little shacks retired from politics.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.