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Ann Arbor's Permanent Polling Places

Grace Shackman

Dotted around the city, they were the headquarters of seven self-reliant wards.

These days, Ann Arbor's five political wards are transitory entities. Wards are redrawn every ten years to insure that they represent as equal populations as possible, and boundaries are freely adjusted by the party in power to create the maximum number of winnable seats.

That wasn't the case before the current city charter was adopted in 1956. Ann Arbor's old ward boundaries lasted much longer--some for more than 100 years--and the wards formed cities-within-the-city that provided residents with an identity more significant than a mere voting address. By 1896 there were seven wards, each with its own school, its own constables and fire wardens, and even its own permanent headquarters: a city-owned polling place.

Four of those polling places were in buildings expressly built for the purpose: 310 S. Ashley, 926 Mary Street, 420 Miller, and 411 S. Forest (now 411 Washtenaw). Another, at 1006 Swift, was a remodeled house. The other two wards had permanent homes in larger buildings: the old City Hall and the Armory. All but the old City Hall still stand, but only the Mary Street structure will actually be used as a polling place in the April 3 election.

Ann Arbor's four original wards were established when the city was incorporated in 1851. They were divided east and west by Huron Street, and north and south by S. Main and N. Fourth. The First Ward consisted of the southeast quadrant--basically the downtown. The Second Ward, today the Old West Side, went southwest. Northwest was the Third Ward, the area between downtown and Mack School. Northeast was the area known today as "the Old Fourth Ward."

The remaining wards were added gradually over the next fifty years: the Fifth Ward in 1861, when Lower Town, the settlement across the Broadway bridge, decided to join the city, and the Sixth (1868) and Seventh (1896) in response to growth in the university area.

In the nineteenth century, a ward's entire population voted in one place, usually either a public building or a store. The move to acquire permanent ward polling places began in 1895, when City Council appointed a committee "to investigate the matter of a location for ward buildings in the First and Second Wards." The committee reported back that there were "certain desirable pieces of property that can be obtained at reasonable prices, which if they are not now secured may soon pass into other uses and out of the reach of the city entirely." Acting on the committee's recommendation, the council purchased two pieces of land: the southwest corner of Huron and Fifth Avenue in the First Ward and 310 S. Ashley in the Second.

The Second Ward polling place was the first built, in 1901, using bricks from a university building torn down the previous year. Next came the Seventh Ward building, completed in 1905 on Mary Street. The First Ward followed with its own polling place in 1908, but not in the freestanding building originally planned. By buying property adjacent to its first lot, City Council eked out enough land to build a complete City Hall. The First Ward polling place was relegated to the basement.

The Third Ward building was erected in 1911 on the northeast corner of Miller and Spring. The same year, Fourth Warders were given a room in the new Armory on Ann Street at Fifth Avenue, and the city remodeled an existing house on Swift Street for the Fifth Ward. Finally, in 1930, the Sixth Ward got its own polling place when the city built an attractive Tudor-style brick building at 411 S. Forest.

Although the ward buildings were set up primarily for voting, groups often requested permission to use them for social gatherings. Petitioners included the Third Ward Men's Club, the Boy Scouts, a Sunday school, and the Players Club. Several times, stores asked permission to use the polling places for temporary storage. In World War II, the Second Ward polling place on S. Ashley was used by the draft board and as a civil defense headquarters.

Paper ballots were used in city elections until 1941. That year, City Council, acting on the recommendation of a special committee, decided to purchase twenty-three nine-party, forty-column, manually operated voting machines. (Some of them are still in use.) A few months later, council appointed deputy treasurer Fred Looker as "custodian of voting machines." Mickie Crawford, deputy county clerk, remembers Looker telling her that in the early days of the new system, people were very distrustful of the machines and frequently asked for recounts on the suspicion that the machines had messed up.

In 1944, the man who eventually replaced Looker, Sam Schlecht, worked on his first election. Looker asked Schlecht, who worked in the Water Department, to help at the Miller Avenue polling place. "In those days, everyone voted," Schlecht says. He recalls that candidates' supporters brought in carloads of people to vote. Many voters were illiterate, and Schlecht spent the day showing them, at their request, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt's name was on the ballot.

Later, as custodian of the machines, Schlecht would start preparations several days before an election. He had to take wood, coal, or kerosene to each of the polling places to start up the potbellied stoves, not only for the comfort of the poll workers, but to warm up the machines enough to be used. He also brought in all the supplies needed, including paper, sharpened pencils, signs, ropes to show the voters how to line up, and the huge old poll books that listed every voter in the ward. The books were so heavy, Schlecht says, that it took two men to lift them.

The use of the ward polling buildings was phased out in the 1950s and 1960s as the city's population growth and the consequent division of wards into precincts created the need for more and larger voting places. Schlecht doesn't remember a specific decision, but one by one, except for Mary Street, the polling places stopped being used. Today, there are sixty-three voting precincts, the majority of them in schools.

The Second Ward building was the first to leave city hands, in 1959. Today it's owned by John and Mary Hathaway, who use it as a meeting place. The old City Hall was replaced by the City Center Building, but all the other ward polling places survive. The Third Ward building, expanded and remodeled, is now Knight's Market. The Fourth Ward polling room has been reclaimed by the Armory. The Fifth Ward polling place on Swift has reverted to a private home, and the Sixth Ward building on Washtenaw has also been converted into housing.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The polling place at 926 Mary (above) is the only one of seven built between 1901 and 1930 that's still used in elections. 1006 Swift (top left)--originally a private home--has reverted to residential use. The brick First Ward building at 310 S. Ashley is now owned by John and Mary Hathaway, who use it as a meeting place.

Rights Held By
Grace Shackman