Richmond museums transform into spacious polling locations 

Signs for Richmond mayoral and city council candidates populate outside of the Institute for Contemporary Art, a polling location for the Nov. 3 election. Photo by Enza Marcy

Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer

The Institute for Contemporary Art closed its doors to gallery enthusiasts on Nov. 3 and — for the first time since opening in 2018 — transformed into a polling location for Richmonders to cast their ballots. 

Due to COVID-19, the crowds and foot traffic typical of past elections caused concerns about maintaining social distancing and ensuring voter safety at the polls. Now, larger venues, such as art and history museums, have subbed for smaller churches and school buildings used in years past.

“I think it’s a really great location, especially for students that are busy,” said Jessica McCadden, director of communications and content strategy at the ICA. “Hopefully, having more places will spread people out and help them feel safe voting.”

The Virginia Department of Elections reassigned voting locations for several precincts that included the Fan, Westover Gardens and Forest Hill Farms. The ICA replaced Dominion Place as the voting site for precinct 206, which includes part of the Fan neighborhood near Monroe Park Campus and VCU’s Grace and Broad Residence Center.

Daniel Nemer, manager of visitor experience and facilities, said the ICA was contacted by election officials in July to determine if the museum would be a suitable venue for in-person voting. 

“It was an interesting process,” Nemer said. “I learned that any polling location is basically just a shell that is being used by the electoral board.”

As of Nov. 1, more than 2.7 million Virginians voted early –– which included in-person and mail-in absentee ballots –– according to the department of elections. In the 2016 presidential election, 566,948 Virginia voters casted an absentee ballot.

Virginia House Bill 1, which was enacted in April, permitted excuse-free absentee voting up to 45 days before Election Day. Previously, voters had to provide a reason for voting absentee.

To mitigate the risks for those that chose to vote in person and to control the amount of voters in the space, the ICA utilized a single entrance and exit. Additionally, the gallery set up floor markers for social distancing and kept doors open to increase airflow in the building.

The Institute for Contemporary Art transformed its downstairs lobby area into a polling place for the Nov. 3 election. Photo by Enza Marcy

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended voters wear face masks to the polls, Nemer was told by election officials that polling locations throughout the state were not allowed to implement a mask mandate for entrance to the building. 

“It’s the one day that we can’t do anything about it,” Nemer said. “If someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, there’s nothing we can do.”

Despite the extra precautions needed on Tuesday, McCadden and Nemer were confident in the electoral officials’ use of the ICA to keep voters as safe as possible.

Michael Plumb, vice president of guest engagement at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, echoed these sentiments. As a first-time polling location for precinct 207, the VMHC closed to the public on Tuesday and served voters in parts of the Museum District.

Plumb said transforming the VMHC’s space into an area suitable for a large number of people was a familiar process. Many of the necessary protocols were already in place after the museum reopened in July. Voters were restricted to the ground floor and followed a one-way route, already established by the museum for daily tours.

“It was really just thinking through the protocols we already had in place, and how we could help on the day of the election,” Plumb said.

Plumb also hoped the change in precinct location would make first-time visitors more interested in viewing the museum’s exhibits in the future.

“It’s another way for us to really engage with our local community,” Plumb said. “We hope people will think about coming back and seeing what the museum has to offer and the stories we are striving to tell.”

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