Security grew ever tighter at the nation’s schools after a gunman murdered 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., two years ago.
Still, Jackson County election officials were taken aback when an administrator at a Lee’s Summit grade school called to say all voters casting a ballot at the school’s polling place would have to undergo a security background check.
No way that was ever going to happen in a free country, especially when Missouri law requires schools to make their buildings available for voting.
But the incident drove home a point: It’s harder and harder to find polling places as schools impose new security measures and churches drop off the list.
As a result, the election board now is proposing a new state law that would cancel classes on the three to four days during the academic year when voters cast ballots. Namely the first Tuesdays of February, April and November, as well as in March for the presidential primary every four years.
“It’s a win-win where we’re concerned,” said Tammy Brown, the Republican election director in Jackson County who said safety precautions have long posed a dilemma for school and election officials.
As in how best to welcome voters into schools unscreened at a time when nearly all school districts require visitors to show ID and, in some instances, be subjected to an instant computer background check before being let in the door?
So Brown, along with her Democratic counterpart, Bob Nichols, hopes to see the Missouri General Assembly pass such a law in time for the 2016 presidential election.
The proposal, which surfaced at last week’s Jackson County budget hearings, is in step with the 2014 report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. It suggested holding teacher training on days when the polls are open so that voting would not lengthen the school year.
Other Missouri election officials were supportive of the Jackson County proposal.
“Excellent idea,” said Rich Chrismer, the Republican election director in St. Charles County.
Also in favor was Shelley McThomas, Democratic director at the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners, and Rita Days, the Democratic election director in St. Louis County.
Some districts in the St. Louis area already close schools for the November general election in presidential years, Days said, but uniform closings for all elections every year, she said, would take the guess work out of election planning and save taxpayers money.
“I’m very supportive,” she said.
Missouri’s top school advocacy groups were caught off guard by the proposal, which is not yet a piece of legislation, and they have yet to take a position.
But a statewide mandate of any kind affecting the school calendar is bound to meet resistance from some public school districts, education groups said.
Each district sets its own calendar within broad limits set by law and might bristle at being forced to shift teacher training days from traditional dates.
“I think we’re seeing a trend toward closing school buildings on election days,” said Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association. “But we’d prefer it to be a local decision.”
School safety issues are posing difficulties for election officials nationwide. Only a half-dozen states close schools on Election Day. School districts in other states won’t allow their buildings to be used for voting, or claim they don’t have the space.
There is no requirement in Kansas that schools be made available for voting, for instance.
As a result, only four of Johnson County’s 182 polling places were in schools for the fall election, said election commissioner Brian Newby, who wishes his state had such a requirement and that Election Day was a school holiday.
The issue could come up in the Kansas Legislature, as well as the Missouri General Assembly.
“This is our cause, too,” Newby said.
Election officials across the country have long complained about the difficulty of finding locations to set up voting booths.
In addition to schools, election planners set up shop in other government buildings, shopping centers and even hotels. Space availability tends to change from year to year, which has election officials forever scrambling to find space in time for the next election.
Historically, churches have opened their doors to voters in large numbers. But that’s changing.
Recently, Jackson County got word that voting booths would no longer be welcome in two large churches — Tri-City Ministries and St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Independence — after many years due to new child safety and security concerns.
“We are a school, and in addition we are a preschool as well,” said Tri-City senior pastor Kevin Williams. “If we were just a church, we would continue to do it.”
Each church hosted voting for four precincts that will have to find a new home before long. Over the past year, seven other churches have said “no thanks” to the $80 a day they get per precinct from Jackson County’s board, Brown said, either because of security concerns or because they don’t want the hassle or expense of keeping their buildings open on a Tuesday.
“We’ve been hit hard this year with churches not being willing to sign a contract,” she said.
Another downside of using churches as polling place, election officials say, is the occasional reluctance of some to serve as polling places in years when controversial issues such as gambling and gay marriage are on the ballot.
“They’ve called me and said we don’t want that at my church,” said Kay Brown, county clerk of Christian County, Mo., who is president of the state association of election officials.
She said the possibility that Missourians will be voting on marijuana legalization sometime soon is also bound to cause other churches to drop out because they don’t want to be affiliated with the issue, or the campaigning that goes on Election Day just beyond their property lines.
Financial considerations also are driving support for the expanded use of schools as polling places in Missouri.
Out of 207 polling places in Jackson County, Tammy Brown said, just under half are schools. To save money on voting equipment, she and her board would like to reduce the number of polling places by concentrating precincts in more schools.
The way things sit now, that’s impossible. Space is limited in many schools when they are in operation. Voting is often confined to the gym or some corner of a school building that can be closed off.
But if classes were canceled on election days, more of each school building could be devoted to voting, and there would be more parking.
Closing schools on voting days has worked well in states where it’s mandatory or common practice, election officials say. Communities as far apart in size as New York City and several suburban Missouri school districts cancel classes for elections.
The Lee’s Summit School District has been calling off classes on the first Tuesday in November in even-numbered years since 2012, alleviating security concerns.
In the suburbs of Springfield, the Nixa Public Schools have been scheduling a teacher training day in November for a decade to avoid confusion. Students have the day off every year, even if no election is scheduled.
“It became crazy for it to be even years and not odd,” said district spokesman Zac Rantz.
The Jackson County proposal has not been reduced to a formal piece of legislation, much less been introduced. Therefore, officials at lobbying groups that represent local school boards and school administrators were reluctant to comment.
One who was willing to offer her thoughts was Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City.
She understands the rationale for the change. But rather than require districts to hold teacher training sessions on voting days, she said, a more agreeable solution would be for election commissions to get voluntary compliance in communities where a shortage of polling places is an issue.
“My point of view is, locally work it out,” she said.