GLEN RIDGE, N.J. – 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, leaving their communities without easy alternatives for voting sites.
A presidential commission has been hearing from election officials across the country worried about schools trying to move 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.
The picturesque two-story schoolhouses in quiet neighborhoods had long welcomed residents on Election Day. Now, red signs posted at entrances instruct visitors they must ring the bell and show photo ID to cameras above the doors before they can be buzzed in.
The district strengthened access control last year after administrators, police and an outside security consultant conducted a review in the wake of the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the locked doors also were closed to voters. A gunman had shot his way into the locked Sandy Hook and killed 20 first-graders and six adults in a matter of minutes, so leaving schools open to voters suddenly seemed too risky in Glen Ridge.
“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.
The district’s two elementary schools house children in prekindergarten through second grade, while the middle and high schools weren’t used as polling places. “Particularly the parents of very young children, you can imagine how Newtown resonated with them,” she said.
Similar moves have been made elsewhere, and that’s caught the attention of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. The commission plans to make recommendations this month to President Barack Obama about ways to improve access to the polls, and hopes 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 Dec. 3. “The closing of schools poses a real problem for finding adequate facilities for polling places.”
Conway Belangia, elections director for South Carolina’s Greenville County, 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. But he said 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.”
Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization representing the nation’s election officials, encouraged Obama’s commission to address the matter as part of its goal of reducing long lines.
“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.
After the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado, voting in schools was banned in Jefferson County, the state’s third-largest county, with more than 400,000 people, according to state elections director Judd Choate.
It’s hard to tell how widespread school voting restrictions have become since Sandy Hook.
None of the national school associations contacted by The Associated Press tracks the issue, and the commission doesn’t have figures. A search of news articles from the past year found that more than three dozen U.S. schools either had closed to voting or considered it because of Sandy Hook, and election officials repeatedly testified at the commission’s public meetings that it’s a growing problem.
“Schools are less and less inclined to want to make those facilities locations for voting, because you have access from people coming in off the street,” Ohio Secretary of State John Husted testified at the commission’s Cincinnati meeting in September.
He said most schools are accommodating and some have been motivated to stay open because they rely financially on taxes that have to be approved by the voters. Some studies have shown that voters are more likely to support a school funding proposal if they are casting a ballot in a school.
In some other states, schools are required to be available on Election Day, although there was an effort in the past year in some states to allow schools to close.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says there were at least 15 bills introduced in seven states regarding school safety on Election Day, although none was passed.
Obama’s commission can’t change laws. Its job is to recommend how to shorten lines, promote efficiency and provide better access to the polls.
Obama appointed his campaign lawyer, Bob Bauer, and the lawyer from Republican rival Mitt Romney’s campaign, Ben Ginsberg, to lead the commission, after a pledge during his last State of the Union address to identify nonpartisan ways to improve voting.
David Orr, who manages elections for about 1.4 million voters in Cook County, Ill., said he’s had to remind school officials that state law there requires they stay open, or more would close for elections. But he says scheduling a day off for students seems to be a good solution in some districts.
“That way that the kids aren’t there. There’s room for the polling places. There’s room for parking. And of course, you don’t have those safety issues,” Orr testified in Cincinnati.
Not all districts are open to that idea.
Delaware’s elections commissioner, Elaine Manlove, testified at the presidential commission’s Philadelphia meeting that she’s been trying for years to make Election Day a school holiday or in-service day.
“After the tragedy in Sandy Hook last year, I thought, ‘Well I’ll look at it from their standpoint and as a security issue.’ They certainly don’t want these people wandering around the building. And I’m stunned that … was not good enough either,” she testified.
Glen Ridge’s Ginsburg said it took several months of working with the county board of elections to come up with a different voting location that could provide parking and handicapped access. Voting ended up moving to the Glen Ridge Women’s Club for the October special election for U.S. Senate and for the November general election.
Ginsburg said school officials regret the loss of innocence and that “the heart of our community can no longer be home to an act that’s the heart of our democracy.”
She added: “We wish that events like Newtown of course never happened, but we have to worry about the safety of our children.”