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Securing Schools as Polling Places

By Matthew Weil

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Despite increasing use of voting by mail and early voting convenience options, the majority of Americans cast their ballots in person on Election Day. Based on recent trends, upwards of 75 million voters will go to local polling places this November 8 to cast a ballot. But where those neighborhood polling places are housed is a source of constant concern for election officials. And one of the best sources of polling place locations is increasingly under attack as unsuitable due to security concerns.

When President Obama established the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), now housed at the Bipartisan Policy Center, the main public focus was the length of lines at polling places. The president’s executive order establishing the commission never mentions schools, although the first area the commission was directed to consider included the location of polling places. But time and again, the commissioners heard from election officials that schools are the best facilities for polling places. At the same time, they received testimony that a number of school districts were restricting the use of schools, leaving election officials with insufficient facilities for polling places.

While no reliable and definitive number exists, we know that public schools make up a large percentage of polling places in the United States and are well-suited to the task for several reasons. Schools tend to be located throughout the community. They have large areas within the building in which to situate a polling place such as gyms and cafeterias. Schools have sufficient parking for voters. And the best ones are accessible for voters with disabilities, which is a requirement in law for all polling places (although the accessibility of polling places is a discussion for another time).

School officials and teachers advocates, however, are not as enthusiastic about allowing election officials to use their facilities. They cite real security concerns about allowing unverified individuals into a building during school hours. Election Day can be a chaotic experience that disrupts a school’s normal operation. For example, campaigns are generally allowed to have observers in a polling place and campaign volunteers outside the entrance. Moreover, lines of voters can snake through hallways during high turnout elections.

The PCEA, in its recommendations to the president, attempted to balance the competing interests of election officials and school officials. The commission recommends that:

Schools should be used as polling places; to address any related security concerns, Election Day should be an in-service day.

In many areas of the country, election administrators need schools to be able to field a sufficient number of polling places. However, the commission understood the need to protect student safety. The in-service day for teachers on Election Day preserves schools as polling places while mitigating security concerns. The problem is not intractable if school officials and election officials can work together to serve their shared constituents.

To that end, the New York state legislature is considering two bills on the use of schools on Election Day. Assembly Bill 6040A and Senate Bill 4787 would codify the PCEA recommendation for schools as polling places in law. Last week, former PCEA co-chairs Ben Ginsberg and Bob Bauer sent a letter to the bills’ lead sponsors endorsing the legislation. Read the full letter.

KEYWORDS: BEN GINSBERG, BOB BAUER, PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON ELECTION ADMINISTRATION