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Books, Not Ballots? TN County Debates Use of Library for Voting

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[Image courtesy of historicromance]

A Williamson County, TN judge says he will rule soon about a dispute between election officials and the City of Brentwood about use of the city's library for an early voting location.

Here's the summary of the dispute according to the Tennessean:

In January, the Election Commission filed a lawsuit to secure the library for the March early voting period after Brentwood turned down the notice. The city contends that early voting causes a distraction to patrons and would cancel other activities such as the popular fundraising book sale that had already reserved space.

"In this case, the city of Brentwood is the controlling entity of that building, which is supported by taxation. They are obligated to provide that space for the election," said Jeff Moseley, an attorney for Buerger Moseley & Carson, which is representing the Election Commission.

But in his arguments, Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis attorney Joseph Woodruff, who is handling Brentwood's side in the case, pointed out that could mean that the Election Commission could take over other public buildings such as the courtroom or Franklin's Oak View Elementary School for early voting activities.

"An unaccountable government agency is trying to flex its muscles," he said.

Initially, this seems like a local flavor kind of story - but as local election offices seek buildings that meet all of the requirements for polling places (sufficient space, accessibility, proximity to voters, etc.) public buildings like libraries and schools are increasingly attractive. Moreover, these public buildings are cheaper (and even free) compared to other suitable sites.

The problem, of course, is that the people who usually use these buildings aren't always enthusiastic about sharing the space with voters. Schools - who, as any parent with school-age kids will tell you, are pretty fierce about controlling building access during class hours (I have a collection of garish VISITOR stickers to prove it) - are often concerned about "outsiders" in the same areas with students. Similarly, libraries usually have a dedicated public clientele that they fear may be inconvenienced - or outright displaced - by voting.

Indeed, while the fundraising book sale cited by Brentwood might seem small potatoes compared to the need for voting, in the current funding environment that sale could well provide the library with funds to maintain services it might otherwise have to cut.

For his part, the judge hearing the case recognizes what he's up against in crafting an order before the June 15 deadline for notice to voters of early voting locations: "What I do not want to see is this litigation somehow becoming a civil war dispute between two great government entities in this wonderful county,"

It may not be a civil war, but you can bet there will be lots of similar skirmishes across the nation in the next several months. As an election geek, I want the election office to be able to serve its voters - but as a parent of school-age kids and a library patron I want those services to continue as well.

I don't envy members of the bench who have to decide.

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