Challenges that come with using schools as polling places are behind proposed legislation that would let school districts prevent their buildings from being used for voting.
Current law allows elections boards to demand use of state, county, municipal and public school buildings for voting. Under House Bill 24, local elections boards couldn’t use schools without the approval of local boards of education. When voting in schools is allowed, elections boards would have to follow safety plans the schools develop.
Rep. Lee Zachary, a Republican who represents Yadkin County and part of Forsyth County, said allowing adults into school buildings during elections can conflict with school safety.
“Schools have a legitimate security concern with who’s coming on campus,” Zachary said in an interview.
If schools are going to double as voting sites, elections boards should take some responsibility for safety, he said.
Statewide, about 20 percent of last fall’s polling sites were in schools, according to a News & Observer analysis of a State Board of Elections list.
Wake County had 73 of its 204 voting sites in schools, said Wake Elections Director Gary Sims.
Blocking access to schools won’t work in Wake, Sims said.
“It’s a guarantee we will not have places for people to go vote,” he said.
School buildings aren’t always the first option, Sims said, but they meet accessibility requirements for elderly voters and people with disabilities — a top consideration for elections planners.
Wake also has voting sites at churches, community centers, fire stations and libraries.
Zachary said Winston-Salem/Forsyth school officials asked for the bill. He has seen first-hand the chaos that can come from mixing voting with an active school day at a middle school in Winston-Salem where people were handing out fliers from tents pitched in the parking lot.
“It was just a mess,” he said.
Brent Campbell, spokesman for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth school system, said major elections in the past few years have come at a time of heightened interest in school safety.
“It’s just kind of the storm where all of those things collided and people started asking questions about it,” Campbell said. “The way the law is written, we don’t have a choice. If the Board of Elections asks to use a building, we have to oblige.”
Elections boards can find alternative locations in fire stations and churches, Zachary said.
Sims said not enough of those alternatives are available in Wake County.
“With our growth, the way things are going, community centers and churches are not always the things that are being built,” he said. “Houses and schools to support people who are moving into those houses, that’s where the growth is.”
Some Wake schools make election day a teacher work day, so students don’t have classes. Some schools have delayed openings so students and morning voters aren’t showing up at the same time.
Wake school officials have not discussed changing the law that opens some schools to voters on election day, said spokesman Tim Simmons. They want people to vote, he said, and having the elections board use schools “makes a lot of sense to us.”
Some school voting sites are better than others, Simmons said. The best locations are those where voters and students use separate entrances. The most challenging locations are those where there isn’t enough space to always keep voting and school activity separate — places where the car pool line and voter traffic mingle, for example.
“There’s a little bit of competing,” Simmons said. At the same time, part of what schools do is show students what it means to be a good citizen. “Voting is something that people want to encourage,” he said.