School’s Out (cont.): Election Day Security Concerns Cause Schools to Close

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Back in February, I blogged about how several Virginia counties had decided to close school on Election Day because of worries about controversies surrounding the state’s presidential primary.

Now, with the general election less than two weeks away, school districts are making the same decision, citing the rising tension over the presidential campaign and fears of chaos – or even violence – at the polls. The Deseret News has more:

Rigged elections. Vigilante observers. Angry voters. The claims, threats and passions surrounding the presidential race have led communities around the U.S. to move polling places out of schools or cancel classes on Election Day.

The fear is that the ugly rhetoric of the campaign could escalate into confrontations and even violence in school hallways, endangering students. 

“If anybody can sit there and say they don’t think this is a contentious election, then they aren’t paying much attention,” said Ed Tolan, police chief in this seaside community, which decided to call off classes on Election Day and put additional officers on duty Nov. 8.

School officials already are on edge because of the shootings and threats that have become all too common. They point to the recent firebombing of a Republican Party office in one North Carolina county and the shooting-up of another with a BB gun as the type of trouble they fear on Election Day.

Some of those anxieties have been stoked by [one campaign’s] repeated claims that the election is rigged and [the] appeal to … supporters to stand guard against fraud at the polls. Some are worried about clashes between the self-appointed observers and voters.

The prospect of trouble at the polls is disconcerting on many levels, but especially so when schools are involved – especially with students present:

Schools are popular polling places because they have plenty of parking and are usually centrally located. It’s difficult to say how many school-based polling places have been moved this year, given how decentralized the voting process is across the country.

But state and local officials say voting has been removed or classes have been canceled on Election Day at schools in Illinois, Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

“There is a concern, just like at a concert, sporting event or other public gathering, that we didn’t have 15 or 20 years ago. What if someone walks in a polling location with a backpack bomb or something?” said Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, co-chairman of the National Association of Secretaries of State election committee. “If that happens at a school, then that’s certainly concerning.”

As the worries grow, some parents are asking their local officials to move Election Day elsewhere:

Some of the pressure to close schools on Election Day or move voting is coming from parents. Sara Andriotis, a mother in the Easton, Pennsylvania, area, pushed for voting to be taken out of local schools.

“We were mostly concerned because of the risk that it puts our children in,” she said.

Easton Superintendent John Reinhart wanted to get voting out of schools altogether but was rebuffed by county election officials. So the school board canceled classes on Election Day.

“If you take the personalities away and cast the emotion with the election aside, one has to ask the question: ‘Are our schools the best places for that activity to take place?'” he said. “I just think we’ve reached the point where we need to look at other locations.”

That’s happening in Hall County, Nebraska, which got out ahead of the trend in May when it moved six polling places out of schools for a primary. Those changes will remain in place next month. Voting will be held at three churches and one community center.

But election officials – supported by a recommendation by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration – say that schools are key assets in the drive to provide convenient and accessible locations for voters:

Election officials elsewhere say that schools are vital places for voting and that removing them as polling places creates logistical headaches and voter confusion.

“We wouldn’t be able to conduct voting without them,” said Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association. She said voting in schools has not generally been a concern in Colorado but acknowledged there is likely to be more security this year.

I’ll admit that, as both an electiongeek and as a parent, I’m torn here; I agree with election officials that schools are nearly indispensable as polling places, but I share the concern about putting students in harm’s way. If the fear of violence and/or chaos is borne out on Election Day (which I’m desperately hoping it isn’t) the option of closing schools may not even be on the table going forward.

It’s yet another reason why I’m hoping that the ugliness of this year’s campaign is just an aberration. I’d hate for voters to lose the ability to use schools as polling places because of fears of what will happen there on Election Day.

13 days until Election Day … please be kind to one another – and stay tuned!

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