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February 29, 2016 · OPINION

County should think about changing polling places

File Photo/Lawrence Emerson
Voters check in for the November 2013 election at Margaret M. Pierce Elementary School in Remington.
By Lisa M. Heckathorn

We have recently received word that Fauquier County Public Schools will now be closed on Tuesday, March 1, for the presidential primary known as Super Tuesday, once Sheriff Bob Moser gave his recommendations to the school board during an emergency meeting this morning.

This is after we had been previously told it would be a full day of school with a regular schedule and would not be changed, and then being told last week that we’d have a two- hour delay with extra security measures and that would not be changed. As a teacher, I always think it is best to err on the side of student and staff safety, but I think it is time to ask the question, “Is it time to reassess our polling places?”

Schools have a long tradition of use as polling places, long before the days of Columbine and Sandy Hook. When my now-grown daughters were students at C. Hunter Ritchie Elementary School in the early ’90s, Election Day was also Parent-Teacher Conference Day. Student safety was built in, as no classes were being held, parking was available for teachers, parents and voters. For citizens like me, I could take care of voting and parent conferences in one stop, living in the precinct that was served by Ritchie upon opening, after being moved over from the Lutheran Church on Route 605.

I don’t know why we got away from that model in light of today’s security concerns. Now we have two days off within a week of each other in November for the election and conferences, reducing the term’s instructional days by two.

The spring primary in a presidential election year is an anomaly, as often primaries are in the summer when school is not in session. But it should not be a surprise that the alarm goes up to close school for a March primary when we are closed for the November election. It doesn’t matter how many are participating in the election. (Officials claim turnout will be low on Tuesday, so it shouldn’t have impacted normal school operations.)

The point is that access to the building is easier on election days, so you don’t know who is entering the buildings like you do on a school day, when visitors are required to buzz into the office, provide identification to the office staff and receive a visitor passes. The probability of some evil happening is likely minimal, but do we want to risk being that one time that a child is abducted or a massacre occurs because we worried about preserving instructional time while giving people the right to vote? Surely, that makes sense. But is there a better way?

Is it time to take polling places out of the schools? It has been reported that 13 of the county’s 20 polling places are in public school buildings. Surely there are 13 churches with halls, public community spaces similar to the American Legion hall or government conference areas or lobbies that could be used for voting that do not require the high security access our schools require. This would preserve instructional time, as schools would no longer need to be closed on polling days, and prevent the logistics nightmare of trying to incorporate the general population into a secure school setting.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Give people free and easy access to express their political voice. Just reassess the best locations to accomplish this task.
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