Torn-Down Tuesday: Buffalo’s street corner voting booths

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

There was a time when just about every one of Buffalo’s 462 election districts had its own voting booth.

In the weeks leading up to any election, city trucks would start hauling the green sheds around the city and dropping them off at the hundreds of predetermined intersections, often on the street, and causing a traffic hazard.

A portable green voting shed at the corner of Cherry and Goodell in the mid 50s, before the neighborhood gave way for the Kensington Expressway.

The green painted wooden booths were adorned with an American flag and a tin chimney for the cast-iron stove inside. They were already decades-old when a teamster was paid $10 a day, driving two horses, to set out the booths throughout city neighborhoods in 1928.

Although there were still Buffalonians voting in the tiny shacks as late as 1970, Board of Elections officials had been looking for alternatives 40 years earlier.

“We would like to replace them with fire houses, police stations, branch libraries and other public buildings as voting places, to get away from cluttering up neighborhoods with the unsightly booths and to obviate the possibility of traffic accidents, by not having to place the heavy booths on street corners where there is danger of automobiles, in traffic congestions, colliding with them,” said one Election Board member in 1928, who also said similar proposals had been given the cold shoulder in the past.

By the late 1950s, there were regular traffic accidents with the often poorly placed booths, which had also worn down over 30 years of moving back and forth. There was another groundswell of enthusiasm for a different, more modern way to operate the city’s polling places, but the driving force behind keeping the old green sheds around was cost.

In 1958, more than 300 voting sheds were still set out each Election Day. City officials estimated the cost of hauling and maintaining the booths at about $20 for each polling place, but a study showed that number was closer to $50 per booth.

That $50 was still cheaper, though, than the average $250 to $350 it was estimated it would cost to keep other municipal buildings such as police stations and fire houses open for voters.

Election Day 1957, featuring one of the portable green voting booths, and signs for Frank Sedita and Ann Mikol among others.

With the fate of the old portable booths momentarily secured, County Supervisor Gus Franczyk sponsored a resolution investigating the heating of the booths. Old-fashioned pot-bellied coal stoves were the only source of heat on cold November Tuesdays.

Once again, the upgrade of the heating of the booths was abandoned over price concerns. The average cost to keep voters warm with the coal stoves was $5.41 per year, as opposed to $440 for new electric heaters.

The number of portable booths was down to 278 by 1967 when the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo offered space in its 68 parochial schools for voting. The Courier-Express heartily endorsed a plan set forth by then-Councilman Gus Franczyk to take the church up on the offer.

“Mainly it seems in order to rid the city of the obnoxious, obsolete booths by phasing them out as fast as possible. They have become costly obstacles to civic progress,” read the editorial page of the Courier.

In May 1969, the city began selling off the “antique voting booths,” stipulating that they should be given free to nonprofit organizations willing to move them. Among the early takers were a boys’ club and a Little League for equipment storage.

The election booth sheds were stored on city-owned lots all over the city, but a large number of them were kept on Appenheimer Avenue. The Dr. Lydia T. Wright School was eventually built on the spot that, for decades, was the home of voting booths for the 363 days a year when there wasn’t any voting going on.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.