Schools Are Traditional Polling Stations, But Some Want Out

Some communities will be left without easy spots for voting sites as some schools want to end their traditional role as polling places because of security concerns since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

It’s increasingly worrying to election officials as some schools grow louder with calls for moving balloting out of their buildings. Among them is the Glen Ridge School District, a prosperous community less than 20 miles from Manhattan where the Linden Avenue and Forest Avenue Elementary Schools are now closed to balloting.

Last year after administrators, police and an outside security consultant conducted a review in the wake of the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., the district strengthened access control. Additionally, the locked doors also were closed to voters. 20 first-graders and six adults were killed by a gunman who had shot his way into the locked Sandy Hook, and in Glen Ridge, leaving schools open to voters suddenly seemed too risky.

“After the Newtown tragedy, as you can imagine, we had many, many, many parents who were concerned about security on Election Day,” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, president of the Glen Ridge Public Schools Board of Education.

While the middle and high schools weren’t used as polling places, the district’s two elementary schools house children in prekindergarten through second grade.

“Particularly the parents of very young children, you can imagine how Newtown resonated with them,” she said.

As Nedra Pickler of Associated Press reports, the attention of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration has been caught as similar moves have been made elsewhere. This month the commission plans to make recommendations to President Barack Obama about ways to improve access to the polls, and hope to encourage schools to stay open for voting, among many other suggestions.

“Schools are in many ways a perfect polling place because of accessibility concerns, they usually have adequate parking, they’re large facilities, large rooms, they’ve historically been used as polling places, and they’re ubiquitous,” the commission’s senior research director, Nathaniel Persily, told commissioners as he summarized months of research at their final public meeting on 3rd December. “The closing of schools poses a real problem for finding adequate facilities for polling places.”

The elections director for South Carolina’s Greenville County, Conway Belangia, struggled to find replacement sites after he had to move polling out of eight city schools this past year. He faced budget constraints to rent other facilities and said the move was a hardship on voters confused about the change. However, according to him, most voters understood the need, and it was clear to him after Sandy Hook that balloting didn’t need to be in the schools.

“The schools have mandated that any visitor must go through a security check. That would be impossible for voters coming in to pass ballots,” Belangia said in a telephone interview. “Hopefully those security measures will thwart shootings happening in this part of the country.”

Obama’s commission to address the matter as part of its goal of reducing long lines was encouraged by Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization representing the nation’s election officials.

“Any consideration of forcing the election process to abandon schools as voting locations is likely to have one of the most dramatic impacts on the cost and conduct of elections in the U.S.,” he said in written testimony.