Schools are ideal polling places – but security anxiety is high

Carrie Levin

Votebeat

“This article was originally published by Votebeat, a non-profit news organization covering local election integrity and access to the vote.”

Less than a week before the June 7 primary in New Jersey, students and staff at schools across the state that were to serve as polling places received breaking news: the school would be away that day- the.

The New Jersey primary date came just two weeks after the mass shooting of students in Uvalde, Texas, heightened concerns about the safety of schools across the country.

“After the Uvalde shooting, parental anxiety was very high,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. In response, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy allowed districts to choose virtual learning for schools hosting polling places.

The concerns aren’t limited to New Jersey: Thousands of public school buildings across the country serve as polling places. School buildings tend to be conveniently located, accessible to voters with disabilities, and typically have large spaces such as cafeterias and gymnasiums. In many states, including Texas, Michigan and Arizona, state law requires that public buildings, including schools, be made available for use during elections.

Nonetheless, there has been a “slow trend” of using schools to vote when children are present, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which notes that four states – Delaware, Rhode Island, Montana and Tennessee – require that schools are closed when used as polling stations.

Local election and school officials recognize that heightened public concerns about school safety hardly coexist with the opening of buildings for voting. Some New Jersey state lawmakers are now sponsoring a bill that would allow police to be present in schools and senior centers serving as polling places, which is currently not permitted. Yet in many places there are few good alternative polling places, leaving local authorities in the conundrum of deciding who gets use of school buildings in an election – students or voters.

In his message to the community announcing plans for distance learning, Hamilton Township Superintendent Scott Rocco nodded to the tension, saying he and his staff “tried to move the election out of out of our schools for safety reasons,” Bozza told the New Jersey school. the trustees’ association also lobbied for. “At the same time,” Rocco wrote, “we understand that our community needs accessible voting locations that are a specific distance from their homes.”

The various directions that the debates are taking locally reveal that there is little consensus and no easy answers.

In Washington, DC, local election officials are considering whether to use schools as early voting sites for the November election. In Wake County, North Carolina, parents are calling on the school system to make Election Day a teachers’ workday so students aren’t in the building.

In Texas, months before the Uvalde shooting, the Texas Association of School Boards issued guidelines to school districts advising them that they could not prohibit the use of district buildings as polling places, but that they were to “strategically locate polling places on school property to minimize voter interaction.” and students”. More than 2,000 schools in the Lone Star State served as polling places for the March 2022 primary, according to data provided by the office of the Texas secretary of state.

That includes about half of the polling places in Harris County, which includes Houston. Leah Shah, director of communications and voter outreach for the Harris County Electoral Division, said that since the Uvalde massacre, the county’s electoral division has received a few emails from voters and election workers concerned about the use of schools, in addition to what Shah described. as a “small number of requests” over the years.

“Alternatively, we have also received requests to maintain the use of schools as venues to ensure equitable access for voters, especially in areas where community centers are not close,” Shah said.

In Pennsylvania, Mark Walters, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said “some schools have asked county election commissions to find alternate polling places for student safety reasons,” and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania recommends making Election Day a teacher. working day.

In Michigan, Tracy Wimmer, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, said her office “is not aware of any school districts that have expressed concerns as polling places this year.”

And in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county, “we encountered a lot more challenges in 2020 when schools were closing due to the pandemic and we had to find spaces large enough to accommodate physical distancing. This cycle, we have polling places on more school campuses than in 2020,” said Megan Gilbertson, Maricopa County Elections Spokesperson.

In New Jersey, Bozza hopes for a permanent solution.

“We have tried to get legislation to move the polls around but now if that is not feasible what we are trying to do is allow schools to have a virtual day of learning,” said he declared.

Votebeat reporters Oralandar Brand-Williams, Denise Clay-Murray, Natalia Contreras and freelance journalist Rachel Leingang contributed to this article.

“Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and access to the vote. Sign up for their newsletters here.

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