Local election officials are moving polling places out of schools as the shootings in Newtown, Conn., have intensified concern about opening school doors on Election Day.
In New York, Rockland County officials will relocate polls this year away from 10 schools at the request of the local school district in Clarkstown and Nyack. "In the wake of what happened in Connecticut, it's definitely taken on more urgency,'' says Kristen Stavisky, a county election commissioner. "Voters in these schools will have to move. They won't be going to the polling sites that they've been going to - for some of them, since they were eligible and registered to vote.''
In Baraboo, Wis., three polling sites will be located in the town civic center to avoid using schools, due to security concerns, says Cheryl Giese, Baraboo's city clerk and finance director.
At Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, 26 students and staff were killed by a gunman on Dec. 14.
In Johnson County, Kan., Election Commissioner Brian Newby says his office will be paying for security guards at school polling places for an election on April 2, at the request of the Olathe and Blue Valley school districts. Letters confirming the schools would host polling sites this year happened to be mailed on the day of the Newtown shootings. "I'm sure if you were at a school, you thought about security that day, no matter where you were in the country.'' Newby says.
Entrance to a school building is tightly controlled, while polling places allow voters to come and go freely."The schools are normally secure and then on Election Day, they're all of a sudden not secure,'' says Joel Miller, county auditor in Linn County, Iowa. Last year, he moved 14 polling places from schools. "As we find other alternatives, we'll move the other ones out of the schools. Sandy Hook should have brought it to people's attention that it only takes one bad person.''
"It's not a nationwide stampede out of schools, but it's also not isolated," says election administration expert Doug Chapin, a University of Minnesota professor and author of the Election Academy blog. "Sandy Hook and Columbine have got people thinking 'Well, schools aren't as secure as we would like.' I think more and more jurisdictions are going to start talking about moving them long term.''
In Dubuque, Iowa, voters haven't cast ballots in a school polling place since 2009. The county began relocating its 40 polling places in the 1990s after a child was assaulted in a school bathroom - not during a vote - and local officials realized school security needed to be tightened.
"The schools started looking at their security and we started discussing with them how we fit into that,'' says county auditor Denise Dolan. Now the county pays small fees to locate polling sites in churches, businesses and even Eichman's Bar and Grill in Sageville, located across the street from the school where the poll site used to be.
A wave of proposed legislation in states including Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Texas, would give schools the ability to refuse to host polling sites, require security plans or create school holidays so that children aren't present when voting takes place. About a dozen states require school holidays for state and federal elections, according to Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials.
New Jersey state Rep. John Wisniewski is pressing for legislation to require schools to have security for elections. That may not be able to stop someone intent on murder, "the goal here is just to make it a lot harder,'' the Democrat says. On the other hand, he says, "We don't want to be educating our children in bunkers.''
Election officials say it is difficult to find alternatives to schools, which are wheelchair accessible, have ample parking and are conveniently located for voters.
"I don't blame anyone for worrying about (security). I get it,'' Newby says.
At the same time, he says, it would be difficult to find new sites for one-third of the 220 polling places in the county. "It's harder to get polling places than election workers, and it's hard to get election workers.''
To some election officials, heavy security at polling places clashes with the exercise of democracy.
"We have all become sensitized to posting deputies outside of polling places with their badge and their gun on, because it has the effect of saying to some people, you may not be welcome here,'' Lewis says. "How do you do what's right for children and still do what's right for democracy?"