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School-Based Voting Poses a Tricky Choice: Class Day, or Day Off

By Liana Loewus — October 28, 2008 4 min read
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When voters line up at school-based polling places Nov. 4, some students will have a front-row seat, and others will watch what is widely predicted to be a historic turnout from home. It all depends on where they live.

Nationwide, states and school districts follow a patchwork of policies on whether public schools are open or closed on Election Day. Legislators and officials consider factors that include concerns about student safety and security threats and a simple desire to avoid operational headaches.

According to a soon-to-be-published survey conducted by Educational Research Service, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va., only five states—Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, and West Virginia—mandate school closure on the day of a general election. All others leave calendar decisions up to the local districts.

There are few discernible trends on where schools are open or closed, as even some of the largest states take different tacks.

For example, in California, local school boards have the authority to close schools, said Pam Slater, a public-information officer for the California Department of Education, but they almost never do so for Election Day. In New York state, on the other hand, many districts are closed, including those in New York City, which has 1.1 million-students.

“It does seem very random,” said Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Policymaking, however scattered, is anything but arbitrary for states and districts themselves.

In Randolph, Mass., after an 8-year-old girl was struck and critically injured by an 86-year-old driver on his way to vote in the Feb. 5 presidential primary, school officials re-examined their election procedures. Randolph and several other Massachusetts districts that historically have remained open on Election Day will be closed on Tuesday of next week.

Disagreement remains, however, on the wisdom of closing schools on Election Day, with some observers arguing that seeing the election process provides a true-to-life lesson for students.

“The citizenship piece is huge,” Ms. Christie said. “It’s important for kids to see that people come out to vote, not just their parents. They don’t always get to see that.”

Closed for Polling

Only a handful of states designate Election Day as a school holiday, with most leaving it to districts, or even individual schools, to devise procedures that best fit their communities. As a result, the situation can vary widely by state. In New York, for example, schools are generally closed, while in Arizona and California, nearly all remain open.

Schools closed by state law:
• Hawaii
• Kentucky
• Maryland
• Rhode Island
• West Virginia
• Montana, if the school is used for polling

SOURCE: Educational Research Service

But Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, disagrees. His concerns include the possibility of dangerous intruders in schools and increased traffic, none of which he thinks is outweighed by the appeal to civic education.

“It’s a hollow argument,” he said. “Students aren’t observing and participating; they’re not in the booth when the ballots are being cast. They are just trying to get to class without tripping over a voter. They don’t need to see dozens and dozens of bodies to understand the concept that voting is important.”

Local Custom

Historically, schools have made for convenient polling places in many communities, and ones that are already paid for by taxpayers.

Glen Coocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, recalls attending Longfellow Elementary School, in Cambridge, Mass., as a child and watching officials count votes on election day.

“The excitement had a lot to do with my interest in becoming a school board member,” he said. “I always enjoyed coming down and watching the ballots being counted.”

But in recent years, schools have had to cope with increasing safety concerns. After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, many schools tightened security, including heightening vigilance against intruders. Events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and last year’s shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University added to those concerns.

Other security concerns may also come into play. In Illinois, for example, a new law went into effect in August 2007 prohibiting convicted sex offenders from casting their ballots in schools, forcing them to vote by absentee ballot or in another polling place.

Officials also face practical considerations, such as traffic and other complications of having school open while polling takes place.

Voters pick up their ballots at Fox Valley Lutheran High School in Appleton, Wis., during the presidential primary election on Feb. 19. Although public schools are often used as polling places, private schools, churches, and other facilities are also pressed into service.

The Council of Chief State School Officers has taken no policy position on the question of closing on Election Day. But divisions are sometimes evident within states—and even within districts.

In February, officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., issued a statement that the school board would consider canceling school on Election Day because of anxiety about safety and traffic. Officials in the 168,000-student district have since decided not to change the calendar. In neighboring Broward County, however, the 256,000-student public school system is closed.

And Georgia school districts take a variety of approaches as well: Of 181 districts, 27 close or hold teacher-only professional-development work days during elections.

In Arkansas, the solution has been to keep students in school and to use alternative polling places, such as churches and community centers, said Julie Johnson Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education.

Mr. Trump, the security consultant, favors that approach.

“We spend millions of dollars on access control and enhanced supervision in schools,” he said. “To do just the opposite on a couple of election days—it’s counterintuitive, counterproductive, and counter to the best practices we already have in place.”

But Mr. Coocher said that polling “doesn’t disrupt the school day.”

“Sometimes kids lose their gym for the day,” he said, “or maybe lose the music room, but it is very easy to make a polling place out of a school.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as School-Based Voting Poses a Tricky Choice: Class Day, or Day Off

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