Dad’s Garage Theatre—an improv and scripted comedy theater in Atlanta, where I work as managing director—is typically a very busy space. In normal times, we have eight shows a week for the public, plus rehearsals and workshops, and our administrative offices are on site. But like so many cultural institutions during the pandemic, our building has sat mostly empty since mid-March. Still, because we’re a nonprofit, I wanted to find ways for our community to benefit from the space, so I was excited when I heard that Fulton County was looking for more polling locations, and even more excited when we were selected! Voting this year was more important than ever, and I knew that Dad’s Garage could make the experience unique and enjoyable.
We talk in theater all the time about how the experience of attending a show is just as important as the actual show. For us, the three P’s are paramount: where people perch (sit), pee (bathrooms), and park—in all of these, comfort is key! So when Dad’s Garage was selected as a polling place for the November election, and I was hired as poll manager, I knew I wanted to draw on that background and focus on the experience of voting. As poll workers, our job is to create a situation where everyone who is eligible to vote and wants to can do so while following all the rules and regulations. But what if we also thought of our jobs as creating an experience that made people look forward to voting?
In the performing arts industry, we know that every moment is a chance to create a positive experience for patrons, even in line—after all, this isn’t the DMV! That’s why we have lobby displays, volunteers greeting people at the door, and upbeat music playing. The entire vibe of the theater, from before patrons pick up their tickets to the moment they leave, is vitally important to creating a good experience and ensuring they come back for more.
In that spirit, on Election Day, we encouraged “line warming” activities to make sure everyone waiting to vote STAYED in the line. In the Cabbagetown and Reynoldstown communities in Atlanta (the communities voting at our precinct), a nonpartisan organization called Vote with Dignity is working to make the voting experience outside of the polls a more pleasant one. They provided snacks and water for free to anyone waiting their turn. They booked local musicians to play soothing ambient music (this was challenging as anything remotely political is a big no-no, so we couldn’t have musicians playing their favorite Bob Dylan songs) and sourced the food from local restaurants. All of this helped to keep voters from abandoning the line due to boredom, as they had in previous years.
In Atlanta, we had seen tremendous response from people early-voting at State Farm Arena. For our theater’s polling location, we took one major inspiration from them: providing voter guidelines on our outdoor digital marquee. We cycled through slides with information like “Have Your Photo ID Ready When You Come Inside,” as well as slides showing where voters could double-check their registration and learn more about their ballot at the Georgia Secretary of State website. This meant that bottlenecks or voter confusion inside the polling place was less likely. It is fortunate that facilities like sports arenas and theaters have assets like digital marquees—other polling locations would benefit from them as well.
At our theater, we have learned that providing a great experience for first-time patrons in particular is vital to ensuring they return. When someone comes to pick up their ticket and the box office finds out it is their first time at Dad’s Garage, they are thanked for coming, given an explanation of where things are in our facility, and even given a coupon for free popcorn. People love this kind of customer service! I wanted to make sure that we did something similar for first-time voters. So when first-time voters came into our polling places, we literally gave them a cheer and some applause! We won’t know for sure until the next election, but I’d like to think this simple act will draw people back again.
Finally, we believe in “surprise and delight” at Dad’s Garage. Sometimes it is free doughnuts in the lobby from a local bakery. We’ve even handed out coupons for a “Free Compliment,” which patrons can redeem at the box office—one of our employees will literally give you a heartfelt compliment. On voting day, we reserved a special ovation for our 100th voter that walked through the door, and it was something that made everyone perk up! Coming up with creative ways to provide joy has such an impact in creating a good vibe in our facility. One of the women working with me day of said, “More theaters should run voting. This is what the voting experience should be.” This, to me, confirmed my suspicions that the experience of voting has a huge impact on whether people vote in the future. If you have a lousy, long, miserable experience once, why would you want to trudge through that again?
There are a lot of important rules and regulations to follow while poll working, don’t get me wrong. But we can follow all those processes and procedures while being kind, welcoming, friendly, and cheering for first-time voters. Literally! And if we did, I suspect we’d start to see voter turnout increase, neighbors coming together in new ways, and, ultimately, more engagement in politics—which is a win for everyone.