Are schools still a good polling place?
Some counties consider relocation from schools
By M. Mindy Moretti
My first memory of voting was heading to my elementary school on a day off and standing inside the voting booth with the pretty red, white and blue curtain while my mom pulled the levels with a resounding clunk.
And I am not alone in that memory.
For as long as people have been voting in this country, schools have served as one of the most popular polling places for local elections officials. They are free for use, most were ADA-compliant long before they had to be, they often have ample parking and their gyms/cafeterias/multi-purpose rooms provide plenty of space for voting machines and elections officials.
While schools make great polling places, in recent years elections officials and local governments have begun reconsidering their usage for the safety of the children. The tragic events in Newtown, Conn. have only upped the ante with on state — New Jersey — considering legislation to move polling places out of schools.
But long before the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, when the young victims were still just toddlers, Franklin County, Mo. clerk Debbie Door was considering moving the county’s polling places out of local schools.
“About 5 years ago, I felt there may be an issue with school security on Election Day, so I independently met with a security company and spoke with school officials about having armed security officers outside the schools on Election Day,” Door said. “All of the schools were happy with the decision at that time.”
Door noted that over the past few years the county’s population has grown and what was once a benefit — ample, free parking — was now a concern because of the increase in voter with many arriving during the busy time of day when students are coming and going.
“Having three grandchildren in school, my thoughts are always about the safety of the children as well as the voters,” Door said.
She said that some clerks in Missouri have relocated the polls from schools and others have worked with jurisdictions to ensure that election day is a school holiday, at least for the students.
The National School Safety and Security Services is an Ohio-based school safety- consulting firm that does not support schools remaining as polling places.
“We strongly support efforts to remove polling places from schools,” the National School Safety and Security Services says on its website. “While doing so will obviously require additional administrative work of finding new election sites and providing notice to voters, the additional work is unquestionably worth the added benefits toward creating safer schools.”
Although the organization does not support the use of schools of polling places, it does realize that they are used and so it provides a variety of ways to keep students and voters safe on election day.
Some jurisdictions are making the move from school polling places because of what happened in Newtown. Recently officials in Baraboo, Wis. decided to move their polling places and the elections director in Cumberland County, Pa. approached the county council in an effort to move the polling places from the schools.
Legislation is being considered in New Jersey that would move the polling places out of all schools in the Garden State. Elections officials are mixed in their reactions.
“I am certainly in favor of using the schools. Consider the following: There are over 900 voting machines that need to be situated in locations familiar to the voters. Many voting districts are in residential areas with no commercial or large buildings. They need public parking and good lighting for evening voters. They need a large meeting room to accommodate large numbers of people,” said M. Claire French, clerk of Monmouth County, N.J. “Most importantly, what better example could children have than watching their parents have a voice in choosing our leaders at all levels of government?”
Maria Sardo-Lopes, chief clerk of the Monmouth County Board of Elections said that the Board is aware of the pending legislation but that is has not yet done any research as to the effect of the proposed legislation because, according to Sardo-Lopes, it is unclear at this point whether it will actually be signed into law.
And what about in Connecticut? According to Av Harris, a spokesman for Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, the decision to locate polling places is done at the town level and he has not heard of any towns planning on relocating their polling places.
Harris said that he is also not aware of any pending legislation that might move the polls from the schools.
“Obviously the safety of the children attending school is of paramount concern to everyone in government, especially in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown last December,” Harris said. “Our office encourages local elections officials to communicate regularly with school superintendents to develop effective plans for safely using schools as polling places. During training sessions and registrar conferences we encourage such communication, and we are available as a resource to local governments as needed.”
According to Harris, many cities and towns in Connecticut make election day a school holiday with some towns basing the decision on the type of election — closed for high turnout elections like a presidential election, but in session during a lower-turnout municipal election.
Although there is a movement afoot to move polling places in some areas, factors other than just safety are at play in decreasing the use of schools. The increased popularity of vote-by-mail, either by mandate or absentee and the increasing popularity of vote centers have some elections officials questioning how long we’ll be using polling places at all to cast ballots.
“I don't know that we are on the verge of a mass exodus of polling places from schools…,” wrote Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “But the desire to protect children is strong enough that the issue is likely to re-emerge in other communities, continuing the dialogue about how to balance school safety with the needs of democracy.”