[Image courtesy of washingtonpost]
Mixed in with all the talk in the months since Election Day focusing on the need to address lines at the polls has been another discussion that could represent a real change for election officials nationwide.
In particular, the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT have led some to ask whether it is safe to be using schools as polling places - especially on days when school is is session.
These tensions aren't necessarily new - we've seen them in the context of other public buildings like libraries - but the emotional national response to the Sandy Hook incident has many questioning the longstanding relationship between schools and voting. The latest example is in Cumberland County, PA where the local election director told her county board that she is recommending relocating her school-based polling places to address security concerns:
Cumberland County officials Thursday were told the public's perception of using schools as polling places has changed in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut and that polling places should be removed from school facilities in the county.
Elections director Penny Brown told the county commissioners that "[b]ased on the moment ... and the passion and the emotions that are out there, I am recommending that we remove the polling places from all of the public schools."
Moves like these are significant both because of the prevalence of school-based precincts as well as - at least up to now - widespread acceptance of the practice. Moreover, schools provide space for elections at no extra charge to taxpayers. In addition, we now know that any change in polling places can create confusion and cost the local election office time and money to implement the change.
Many communities deal with the issue by keeping students out of school on days when voters are in them using "in-service days" - but this isn't always an feasible alternative for primary or special elections.
I don't know that we are on the verge of a mass exodus of polling places from schools; indeed, in Cumberland County the board voted only to relocate one polling place where school representatives had expressed a concern. But the desire to protect children is strong enough that the issue is likely to re-emerge in other communities, continuing the dialogue about how to balance school safety with the needs of democracy.