Every election for the past 16 years, Claudine and Sean Ryan have let their one-car garage on Jersey Street in Noe Valley be transformed into a polling place. "I think we were only here for a few months when the Elections Department called us and told us our house used to be a voting precinct and asked us if we were willing to do it again. And we said, 'Sure. Why not?' " says Claudine.
It might sound odd, but they're not alone. San Francisco elections Director John Arntz says that of the city's 576 precincts, 169 are in private homes or garages. So what does it take to turn the garage into a polling place?
A few days before each election, materials are delivered to the Ryans' residence: Tables, foldable voting booths, signs and even a portable toilet. Then they have to clear out the garage of all the bicycles, golf clubs, Halloween decorations and the car.
But it doesn't get much fancier than that. In fact, before the Ryans renovated their garage, the elections volunteers dealt with exposed wood beams and very few outlets.
"When they came to set up, they'd have to string their electric cords across the garage," says Claudine. "I think at least a couple of times in the last 15 years we've actually had to repair the concrete. Roots were coming up from our neighbor's tree, and we were told that it wasn't safe to have an election here unless we did that work."
Most importantly, they also have to remember to take down any political or campaign signs they might have been displaying.
"The rules are that you can't have any signage within 100 feet of the election site [on Election Day]," says Claudine. About halfway through election morning one year, they were reminded of this rule when someone noticed they had forgotten a campaign sign in one of their windows -- and it needed to come down now.
"The problem was, we weren't at home when we were getting frantic text messages from the person who was running our precinct," she said. "We had to figure out how to get someone into our home to get rid of the sign as quickly as possible."
When Claudine is home, especially when she used to work from home, she'll bring the election poll workers coffee, tea and fresh banana bread. It's part of what the Ryans like to think of as their neighborly election tradition.
The three kids have grown up with elections always taking place right below their bedrooms. And the whole family has all gotten used to the hustle (and constant dog barking) on Election Day. But that doesn't mean they all vote there. It took one historic missed election during the Gov. Gray Davis recall for Sean to learn he couldn't count on having a polling place right in his garage.
"I had never voted absentee, because I have a voting precinct in my garage and I love the tradition of having the neighbors come vote in the garage," he says. "But I was traveling that week unexpectedly, so I missed the vote. So from then on, even though we have it in the garage and I love having it, I vote by mail."
At the end of the night, the poll workers close up, submit the official count, and put a piece of ticker tape on the garage door that says how many votes there were at this precinct for each candidate and measure.
"It's really interesting to see what my neighborhood is thinking," says Claudine.