Bill introduced to ensure polling places stay in schools, despite safety concerns

March 15, 2019

BOISE — To address a statewide demand for suitable polling locations, legislation was introduced Wednesday to ensure Idaho’s public schools remain a place to vote on Election Day.

“Finding adequate places to vote is becoming increasingly difficult,” said Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle. “Without the use of our schools, we will be forced to look at other methods of voting.”

The bill, introduced in the House State Affairs Committee, would ensure public schools are made available as polling locations on Election Day, as well as make certain that county commissioners, clerks and school districts work together to make that possible. It leaves the discretion to the local school districts to determine how to best accommodate voting. Wednesday’s action clears the way for a full hearing later.

The proposal, co-sponsored by DeMordaunt and Rep. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, aims to reach more urban areas where it’s becoming harder to find adequate polling locations, and where school polling makes up nearly half of the locations.

Out of the nearly 958 voting precincts across the state, more than 270 are found in public schools, making them one of the most common polling locations in the state, according to DeMordaunt, a founder of the public North Star Charter School in Eagle.

“Public schools serve as a very important role in the election process throughout our state,” she said.

Federal law requires polling locations have adequate parking and be ADA-compliant, and public schools meet those needs, which is why DeMordaunt said it’s important they remain open for voting. Although churches and other common buildings can be used as well, they generally don’t meet all of the requirements.

“Schools are one of the rare public buildings located in residential areas where precinct voting is based,” DeMordaunt said. “If we want to ensure that these traditional polling places are available, it’s important that we continue to allow schools to be used for this purpose.”

The proposed legislation comes from county clerks in Bonneville, Bannock and Canyon counties, who DeMordaunt said have faced recent challenges finding enough polling locations.

Though many of Canyon County’s polling locations are churches, some precincts have very few churches, schools or businesses that can be used on Election Day, and parking issues make it difficult to use private residences, Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker previously told the Idaho Press. He added that having school polling places is “by far” the county’s least favorite location.

The bill comes to the Legislature despite some safety concerns raised following the November election.

One Caldwell resident reached out to the Idaho Press in November to express concern over how voting at a local elementary school was handled, where she recalled entering the school through the main entrance to vote, which was “packed” with both voters and children, without the presence of any officer or security guard.

“Those children were absolutely in the crossfire,” Lisa Holloway, the Caldwell voter, previously told the Idaho Press. “It only takes one person without a right mind — it would have been horrific.”

In 2017, Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, then the chief deputy clerk, proposed a bill to ensure no student instruction would take place in public schools on election days.

That bill died in committee, with little support from the schools, which McGrane said wanted discretion on their calendar.

“A question that I think will come up at the hearing … or an issue that may come up is school security, and I was wondering if you had run this idea by the different school districts?” Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, asked. “That’s going to be an issue at least in my area.”

DeMordaunt said she plans to discuss the bill with school districts and the Office of School Safety & Security.

“We certainly are cognizant of the security issues that will arise,” DeMordaunt said.

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