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Why do we in the United States have voting districts? Wouldn't it be better to allow people to vote wherever is most convenient and then group relevant votes based on the voters' addresses?

Since we have electronic polls, I don't think it would be too difficult to implement. If security is an issue, couldn't we just use extra long variable-length encryption keys that change every few seconds, along with server and host authentication?

Wouldn't more people vote if they could just go to the most convenient poll?

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  • "Wouldn't it be better ..." Better for whom? The logistics could be a bit more difficult though. You have to authenticate somehow to avoid fraud.
    – Trilarion
    May 31 '17 at 9:40
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I think what you're actually asking about are polling places, the location where you cast your ballot, not districts. These are typically preallocated to certain voters because of the difficulty in keeping track of who has voted. Your ballot can't contain your name because your vote is supposed to be secret, so to ensure that each voter votes only once and only registered voters can vote, each polling place has a list of the people eligible to vote there and can cross people off as they arrive. Allowing people to vote at any polling place requires that each polling place have a complete list of registered voters, and a way to stop you from driving from place to place voting over and over; they can't wait till later to sync up, since there's no way to invalidate your ballot after you've voted.

However, with computerized record keeping this is no longer a problem, and indeed there are counties that allow voting at any polling place. The reason it's uncommon is just because it was so recently infeasible to manage, but I imagine it will become more widely available as we rely more on technology to handle elections

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  • Allowing voting at any place does not require electronic voting.
    – gerrit
    Dec 6 '12 at 8:56
  • @gerrit Yeah, I said completely the wrong thing there. I was intending to talk about using computers to handle voter information, not about computers to record votes, which isn't really relevant. I hadn't even considered the method you mentioned in your answer Dec 6 '12 at 9:25
  • Many states these days allow 100% absentee balloting via mail or otherwise (such as delivery by mail, but casting at a drop box).
    – Kevin Peno
    Dec 6 '12 at 22:11
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    @KevinPeno: Not many. I'm an election judge, so I would know if there were "all sorts of interesting loopholes". Rules will differ from state to state, but in Texas, election judges aren't supposed to prevent a person from voting if they insist on doing so. If the judge thinks they're in the wrong place or ineligible, he provides a provisional ballot that is tallied and qualified separately. However, once a regular ballot is cast, there is virtually no way to invalidate it because there is no audit trail of any kind that can connect an individual voter to a specific ballot. Aug 28 '13 at 18:50
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    @gerrit It pretty much does, if "any place" you include cities other than you live. You can't have paper ballots for every city at every precinct. Dec 18 '20 at 2:08
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The answer depends on the country. You appear to be in a country where this is a requirement. I am from a country where it is not. In The Netherlands, in national elections, anyone can vote anywhere as well.

It's quite simple: every voter gets a single voter card with their name on it. When they go to a polling station, they hand in their voting card (and show their ID) and get a different, anonymous card in return. Then they go and cast their ballot at this polling station. Anonymity is guaranteed because the voting card does not end up in the booth.

Note that in principle, whether or not someone voted at all is not guaranteed to be anonymous in this system, but it isn't either when a name is crossed on a list. I'm not sure if it's possible at all for this aspect to be anonymous, short of destroying all relevant information immediately after the elections.


An amusing side-effect of that in The Netherlands, some municipalities actually have a turnout of more than 100%. In the 2012 elections, the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog had a turnout of 150.33%. How? Because the island has 761 inhabitants entitled to vote, but a grand total of 1144 voted on this touristic island. In practice, the liberty to vote in any place in the country means turnout figures are not very meaningful anymore except on a national basis.

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  • I have a minor question about the process in the Netherlands, how do these voting cards distributed?
    – Utku
    Dec 8 '12 at 16:46
  • All citizens are registered with authorities, so the authorities have the home address of all residents and sends the voting cards by ordinary mail. Citizens living abroad need to register. If one didn't receive the voting card one can get it in some other way, I don't know how they ensure in that case that all vote only once.
    – gerrit
    Dec 8 '12 at 16:48
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    How does this system prevent fraud? Also, it seems that this system only allows a voter to vote once with his voting card. In the US, an individual may be eligible to vote in 4-6 (or more) elections in a year. Aug 27 '13 at 3:51
  • -1 because this answer is pretty much unresponsive to the question, which was specifically about the US. I would have just closed your answer if it hadn't had 6 upvotes already. Aug 27 '13 at 3:53
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    @BenCollins The edit indicating US is newer than my answer.
    – gerrit
    Aug 27 '13 at 8:42
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Another consideration is local issues and elections. If every polling location in a state had to maintain and distribute ballots accurately containing every combination of issues for every locale it would be incredibly complex and error prone.

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One issue unique to the United States is division into several different types of district. I live in Massachusetts, which is divided into US House districts, state House districts, and state Senate districts.

The city of Cambridge is divided between two US districts, five House districts, and three Senate districts. The boundaries of these districts do not line up because they're all based on different population criteria. Based on where in the city you live, you might be in these US/House/Senate district combinations:

  • MA-5 / 25th Middlesex / 1st Suffolk & Middlesex
    • Precinct 4, Ward 3
  • MA-5 / 25th Middlesex / 2nd Middlesex
    • Precinct 10, Wards 1 & 2
  • MA-5 / 25th Middlesex / Middlesex & Suffolk
    • Precinct 4, Ward 2
    • Precinct 6, Wards 2 & 3
    • Precinct 7
    • Precinct 8
  • MA-5 / 26th Middlesex / Middlesex & Suffolk
    • Precinct 3, Ward 2 (part)
    • Precinct 6, Ward 1
  • MA-5 / 29th Middlesex / 2nd Middlesex
    • Precinct 9
  • MA-7 / 24th Middlesex / 2nd Middlesex
    • Precinct 11, Wards 1 & 3
  • MA-7 / 25th Middlesex / 1st Suffolk & Middlesex
    • Precinct 4, Ward 1
  • MA-7 / 26th Middlesex / Middlesex & Suffolk
    • Precinct 1
    • Precinct 2, Ward 1
    • Precinct 3, Wards 1, 2 (part), and 3
  • MA-7 / 29th Middlesex / 2nd Middlesex
    • Precinct 10, Ward 3
    • Precinct 11, Ward 2
  • MA-7 / 8th Suffolk / 1st Suffolk & Middlesex
    • Precinct 2, Wards 2 & 3
    • Precinct 5

That's 10 different ballots in one city. It gets even worse if you consider primaries. There are four parties in Massachusetts that conduct primaries (Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, and Green-Rainbow). That means there could be as many as forty different ballots for primaries.

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  • It gets even worse once you factor in smaller-scale divisions. For example, my voting district is the intersection of six different representation districts (US House, state House, state Senate, county commission, city council, school district), and some places nearby have even more (eg. fire district, public utility district, recreation district).
    – Mark
    Dec 17 '20 at 1:47
  • Also, sometimes there a distinction between people not registered for any party voting a party's ballot, versus people registered for the party. And then there's different languages. Dec 18 '20 at 2:12
  • I would guess this isn't unique to the US, but certainly not universal. The UK Electoral Commission certainly tries to avoid splitting "council wards" (for local-level representatives, of which there are often two levels) between multiple "government constituencies" (for national-level representatives) but I would bet there are exceptions.
    – IMSoP
    Dec 21 '20 at 17:36
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Yes, I think somewhat more people would vote if they could vote at any poll. (I work at the polls as a party representative. People arriving at the wrong precinct is the most common problem, and there's no alternative but to go to the correct one—a provisional vote is worthless.) I think the problem is mostly technological. You need to have statewide pollbooks and provide custom ballots to each voter listing the correct state and federal representatives, school board, bond issues, etc. They seem able to do this for absentee voters. One lesser problem might be with predicting the load if every precinct had an unknown number of voters coming. But absentee and electronic voting are not panaceas for reasons of accuracy, fraud, reliability too detailed to go into here.

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  • "a provisional vote is worthless" They get thrown out? Dec 18 '20 at 2:10

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