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Schools are ideal polling places — but anxiety over security is high

Uvalde shooting heightened concerns about school security, but good alternatives arn't always available

“This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access.”

Less than a week before New Jersey’s June 7 primary, students and staff at schools around the state slated to serve as polling places got some late-breaking news: School would be remote that day. 

The New Jersey primary date was only two weeks after the mass shooting of students in Uvalde, Texas, heightened concerns about school security across the country. 

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

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

Nonetheless, there’s been a “slow trend” away from using schools for voting when children are present, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which notes four states — Delaware, Rhode Island, Montana, and Tennessee — require schools to be closed when used as polling places. 

Local election and school officials acknowledge that the public’s intensified anxieties over school security coexists uneasily with opening the buildings up for voting. Some New Jersey state lawmakers are now sponsoring a bill that would allow police to be present at schools and senior centers serving as polling places, something that currently isn’t permitted. Still, in many places, there are few good alternative polling sites, leaving local officials in a conundrum of deciding who gets the use of school buildings during an election — students or voters. 

In his message to the community announcing plans for remote schooling, Hamilton Township Superintendent Scott Rocco nodded to the tension, saying he and his staff “have tried to move the elections out of our schools for security reasons,” something Bozza said the New Jersey school administrators’ association has also lobbied for. “At the same time,” Rocco wrote, “we understand that our community needs accessible voting locations that are within a specific distance of their homes.”

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

In Washington, D.C., local election officials are reconsidering whether to use schools as early voting sites for the November election. In Wake County, N.C., parents are asking the school system to make Election Day a teacher workday so students aren’t in the building.

In Texas, months before the Uvalde shooting, the Texas Association of School Boards issued guidance to school districts informing them they couldn’t prohibit the use of district buildings as polling places but should “strategically locate polling places on school property to minimize interaction between voters and students.” More than 2,000 schools in the Lone Star state served as polling locations for the March 2022 primary, according to data provided by the Texas secretary of state’s office. 

That includes roughly half the polling sites in Harris County, which includes Houston. Leah Shah, Harris County elections division’s director of communication and voter outreach, said that since the massacre in Uvalde, the county’s elections division has received a couple of emails from concerned voters and election workers 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 use of schools as locations to ensure equitable voter access, especially in areas where community centers are not closely available,” Shah said.

In Pennsylvania, Mark Walters, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said that “some schools have asked county boards of elections to find alternate polling locations over student safety concerns,” and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania recommends making Election Day a teacher workday. 

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

And in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county, “we found many more challenges in 2020 when schools were closing because of the pandemic and we needed to find spaces large enough to allow for physical distancing. This cycle, we have polling locations on more school campuses than in 2020,” said Megan Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for Maricopa County elections.

In New Jersey, Bozza is hoping for a permanent solution. 

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

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

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

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In many states, including Arizona, Texas, and Michigan, state law requires public buildings, including schools, to be made available for use during elections.

Back then

Schools and voting have a long, odd history together. Several states allowed women to vote in elections related to schools well before the 19th Amendment.

It all started in 1838 when Kentucky enfranchised women for these elections, so long as they were widows or unmarried women who owned property and were subject to school taxation.

From 1855 to 1910, a total of 27 states and territories followed suit, with New Mexico as the last to do so. Mississippi in 1880 specifically restricted this already-limited franchise to women who were the “head” of the family.

Kentucky changed its requirement in 1893 to give widows or unmarried mothers of children in school the right, and in 1912 broadened the law to include all “literate” women.