As security concerns rise in the wake of school shootings, some schools are no longer willing to serve as official polling places during elections.
Among them is the Glen Ridge School District, a quiet, affluent community less than 20 miles from Manhattan where the Linden Avenue and Forest Avenue Elementary Schools are now closed to elections.
The picturesque two-story schoolhouses 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 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn. 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.
As the trend continues, it has caught the attention of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which plans to make its recommendations this month to President Barack Obama. Their report will contain suggestions about ways to improve access to the polls, as well as ways to encourage schools to stay open for voting.
“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. “The closing of schools poses a real problem for finding adequate facilities for polling places.”
David Orr, who manages elections for about 1.4 million voters in Cook County, Ill., suggested to the commission that scheduling a day off for students seemed to be a good solution in some districts.
“That way that the kids aren’t there,” Orr testified. “There’s room for the polling places. There’s room for parking. And of course, you don’t have those safety issues.”
Many districts already close on election days, giving their staff the freedom to vote in their home communities at their leisure. Closing also avoids the concern of mixing an incoming stream of voting adults with children who are there for school. Not all districts, however, are open to the idea.
Glen Ridge’s Ginsburg said it took several months of working with the county board of elections to come up with an alternative voting location that could provide parking and handicapped access. Polling places moved 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 regretted 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.”