Schools could get vote for elections
By Susan DeMar Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org April 15, 2014 6:34PM
Illinois Rep. William Davis, D-East Hazel Crest | AP photo
Updated: May 17, 2014 6:41AM
When the Homewood branch of US Bank was robbed on Election Day in November 2010, it forced nearby schools to go on lockdown while police searched for one of the three robbers.
No one was allowed to enter or leave the schools for 45 minutes — not even those who came to the schools to vote. The voters inside the schools could not leave, while those who came to vote were told to come back later.
That incident prompted state Rep. William Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, to co-sponsor House Bill 4480, which would allow school districts to decline to have their schools used as polls if school officials feel it would interfere with their security measures.
Public schools are required to be polling places. Davis acknowledged that schools are a “perfect place” for a poll because they are usually handicapped-accessible, offer plenty of parking and are conveniently located.
“But there is a safety concern,” he said. “If schools could opt out, I believe many of them would.”
County clerks are keeping their eyes on the bill and another sponsored by state Rep. John Cabello, R-Rockford, that would prohibit a building or part of a building to be used as a polling place if “spirituous or intoxicating liquor” is sold anywhere on the premises. It would eliminate veterans’ clubs, social halls and golf course clubhouses.
“We do not want people buying drinks to get people to vote,” Cabello said, adding that there have been “several times” in Chicago where busloads of people came to a polling place where alcohol was served and “would line up, do shots, then go vote.”
The proposed bills have prompted Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots to urge the county board to adopt resolutions opposing them when it meets Thursday. If both bills passed, it could cost the county 112 of its 303 polling places, she said.
“This would be a disaster. Where else would we go?” Voots said. “... The schools have been great. We’ve been using them for years.”
While the two bills are not likely to go anywhere this legislative session, Voots said she’s taking nothing for granted. She’s required by law to mail out new voter cards this year, listing the polling places, and she doesn’t want to waste money.
In Cook County, one-third of its 1,078 polls for the March 18 primary were located in schools, county Clerk David Orr said.
“We are concerned about safety, too, but we have to have these as polling places,” Orr said.
Both county clerks said they try to work with school officials as much as possible. Election calendars are provided to schools years in advance, and schools are encouraged to use Election Day as a teacher training day or non-attendance day and to provide a separate entrance for voters. Many do.
“That is the best solution. That supports what we have been trying to do. We all have the same goal,” Orr said. “Elections are only three times every two years. That’s not a lot.”
State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, chief sponsor of House Bill 4480, said he does not seeing his bill moving forward now because “Orr is opposed to it. I will keep pushing for it. Why would you ask a school to throw safety protocol out the window? That is appalling to me. Schools ought to have a say in this.”
Most schools require visitors to show identification and be buzzed in, but that’s not enforced on Election Day, and voters are allowed to walk through a school to reach the gym or media center to vote, Franks said.
“Orr has too much influence. He ought to think outside the box. How hard is it (to find other polls)? It’s their job to find polling places,” Franks said.
Orr and Voots said it’s getting harder to find good polling places. They must be handicapped-accessible; large enough to accommodate judges, voters and voting machines; be heated and well lit and willing to remain open from early in the morning until late at night.
Orr would like to see Election Day become a holiday, as it is in many other countries, or to have everyone vote by mail as voters do in Washington and Oregon. But that would a change to state law, he said.
“It’s something to talk about,” Orr said.
In the meantime, he has pushed early voting, and those numbers have continued to increase — from 11 percent in the 2010 primary election in suburban Cook County to 18 percent in the March 18 primary, according to Orr’s office.