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Election Commission vs. Public Schools: Balancing Public Safety and Voter Accessibility

by Kelly Petty, published

With the November general election a few months away and several primary and special elections ahead, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration released a report in January outlining several recommendations to shore up voting lines, increase voter participation and registration, and improve the voter experience.

The commission specifically called for states to encourage the use of schools as polling places. Yet, some state election boards and school administrations have pushed backed on the idea in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

The Commission argued for school-based precincts, stating:

“They have the needed and desirable space, are inexpensive, widespread, conveniently located, and accessible for people with disabilities. About a quarter of voters nationwide voted in schools in the 2008 and 2012 elections, and close to one third of Election Day voters did so. Recognizing the importance of schools in elections, some states mandate or explicitly authorize their use as polling locations."

Commissioners recognized the decisions of some lawmakers to limit the use of public schools post-Sandy Hook, but felt those security concerns could be addressed by assigning “in-service” days to schools that are designated polling locations. Students who would normally be in classes would have the day off, thus eliminating school safety issues.

“With almost no exception, the testimony received from state and local election administrators identified schools as the preferred venue for polling places,” the report stated.

Those considerations have not stopped several states from limiting the use of schools or eliminating them altogether as an option for polling locations.

Lawmakers in several states, including Indiana, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey have submitted legislation in the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions to limit how schools would be used on Election Day. Yet, most of the bills have been referred to committees.

Indiana’s House Bill 1244, which would have prohibited schools from being used as polling places, was introduced in January 2013, but died during the legislative session. Legislation in the New York Assembly that would mandate schools to not be open on Election Day was introduced in 2013 and 2014, and has been referred to the state’s education committee both times.

Opponents of schools as polling places have cited huge security burdens on districts to ensure public safety for voters coming in and out of the schools. There are also state laws which require children to be in school for a certain number of calendar days, which would have an effect on whether or not school boards could approve in-service days to accommodate Election Day.

Delaware Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove told commissioners at a Pennsylvania hearing that she tried and failed to get schools to use an already scheduled professional day on Election Day. State legislation to mandate that schools use in-service days did not come up for a vote in the Delaware General Assembly. She called for a federal mandate.

“I think in this time of security in schools, the last thing we need to have is voters wandering around the building looking for their polling place, which has moved to a far corner because school's in session and they're not giving us the gym or the lobby,” she said.

Spaces for polls are often donated or rented out and poll workers are volunteers. This makes it difficult to limit polling place options for election directors seeking locations to place ballots.

Brian D. Newby, an election administrator in Kansas, wrote in his blog, Election Diary, that the selection of polling places is a complex process that takes into consideration costs and guaranteeing neutral locations that won’t influence voters on certain ballot measures:

“Selecting polling places is a no-win endeavor…Most of our polling places are donated space. That's important because one thing I hear often from our county manager is how expensive elections are.”

So the need to keep schools as a precinct option ensures that elections are well-staffed and include enough space for all voters to easily access the polls.

About 20 states have laws that explicitly authorize or mandate the use of their schools as polling places. Among the states are Arizona, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Georgia.

The commission hopes that its recommendations to create shorter lines and designate more places for voters to go to the polls through the use of public schools will come about through partnerships between lawmakers, state election officials, and school superintendents.

“State legislators working with school boards and election officials should be able to craft legislatively authorized programs that effectively balance school and electoral administrative needs,” the commission said.

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