Do schools and elections make a bad mix?
Miller: In-session schools as polling places a security risk
CEDAR RAPIDS — Schools officials have turned hypervigilant about security in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders in Newtown, Conn., in December — except on election days when some schools double as polling places, says Joel Miller, Linn County auditor and commissioner of elections.
Miller on Wednesday said he has asked the Cedar Rapids school district to consider coordinating its teacher in-service days around election dates so that students aren’t in class on the days that people vote at polling places in schools.
In 2013 in Linn County, voters go to the polls in September for school elections and November for city elections, and they voted in March at a special election on casino gaming. The March vote came on a snow day, so students weren't in class, Miller said.
Nine of 44 Cedar Rapids polling places are in schools as are two others — North Linn High School and Prairie High School — among Linn County’s 42 other polling places.
"Sandy Hook was a wake-up call to everybody," Miller said. "We secure our schools all year long, so why are we opening up our schools on election days?
"If somebody is trying to do something, and the only time they can get into the school is on election day, that’s going to be when they’re going to strike."
Miller noted that the Iowa City school district just last week approved spending some $5 million to enhance school security, an investment that might come to nothing if a murderer enters a school polling place while school is in session, he said.
"That may be someone involved in a child custody battle or people who aren’t supposed to be around children or some malcontent who wants to do something," Miller continued. "So the solution: You close the school to students on election day. You don’t hold class that day."
Travis Weipert, Johnson County’s new auditor and commissioner of elections, on Wednesday said that Linn County’s Miller is not alone in his concern about schools and polling places. Weipert said he is working on a similar proposal with the Iowa City schools as well as looking at moving polling places out of schools.
"It would allow for better safety at schools, easier access for voters and a possibility that teachers could work the polling sites," Weipert said.
Miller, who took over as Linn County auditor in February 2007, said he has moved polling places out of many schools in recent years because of security concerns, but also because of parking problems and space issues in some schools. Many of the former school polling sites were moved to churches, and Miller said he heard some concerns about that related to the need for separation of church and state.
Allen Witt, a principal at Hall and Hall Engineers Inc. and a Cedar Rapids school board member, on Wednesday said Miller’s proposal to separate polling stations from students made sense, adding, "It sounds like something we should already be doing."
At the same time, Witt said he still could warm to the notion of voters coming into schools to vote while school was in session because it gives students a firsthand look at democracy in action.
"Some kids will remember that. I remember that," Witt said. But times have changed, he added.
"We’re so darn concerned about some nut coming in there with a gun," he said. " ... I understand what the concern is, and it’s probably wise (to separate voters and students) in this day and age."
Witt wondered if even a bigger change might keep schools safe and help to get more people to vote — Saturday voting, instead of Tuesday voting, for instance. Or having everyone vote by absentee ballot, he said.
Turnout for school elections in Iowa is particularly disheartening. In September 2011, 5 percent of registered voters voted in the Cedar Rapids school elections, according to county figures.