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Unicoi election officials find no fix on election sites at schools

March 19th, 2014 5:06 pm by Brad Hicks

Unicoi election officials find no fix on election sites at schools

ERWIN — Unicoi County Election Commission Chairman Thomas Reeves said Monday that local election officials have identified the problem, but a solution still escapes them.

The Election Commission met Tuesday morning, in part, to discuss its recent correspondence with the Unicoi County Board of Education. May 6 is the date of the Republican primary, and Unicoi County schools will also be in session on that date. Several county schools are currently utilized as polling places.

In February, the Election Commission discussed the election day’s possible impact on student safety, which prompted the concerned panel to send a letter to the Board of Education on March 7 requesting that schools be closed on the date of the primary.

“Considering the several tragic national incidents involving school students these past few years, closure is recommended,” the Election Commission’s letter stated. “We realize and understand that your school calendar is already established, but the Election Commission asks that this request be seriously considered for the enhanced safety of the students who would otherwise be in attendance on that day. As you may be aware, hundreds of voters will be entering these facilities without any reasonable means to conduct security screenings of them or their personal effects.”

“As we discussed, it’s a hanging liability and situation which is beyond our control to cure,” Reeves said Monday.

The school board responded to this request last week with a letter of its own. In it, Director of Schools Denise Brown and Board of Education Chair Renea Jones-Rogers said school could not close on May 6, as the week of May 5 is mandated assessment days for county students.

“You can read in her letter, even though they’ve been aware of our election day, they’ve never been able to close because they have mandated testing and that comes to them from the state, the same way our election day comes to us from the state,” said Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey. “We’re sort of both at a point where, even they we’re both willing compromise, I believe, we’re restricted in what we can do.”

The Board of Education proposed several options, including holding the primary on a different date or relocating polling places from the schools. Bailey previously said local election commissions have no say on when state, federal and county elections are to be held, as these dates are governed by state code. She also said it would be difficult to change the polling places, as this would require sending notification to affected voters and the evaluations of the new locations to ensure accessibility.

“Schools are great places because, by their own right, they have to be accessible,” Bailey said. “Obviously, they’re public buildings so they can’t charge rent and that sort of thing. It would just be a project. It’s certainly worth considering just to move forward, but you’re looking at changing half the polling places so it would be a big endeavor.”

Bailey said the Republican primary is the only election that should be impacted by schools this year or next, as schools are typically closed for professional development the first Tuesday in November — the same day as the municipal election.

Love Chapel Elementary School was previously used a polling place but, after its closure due to sinkhole concerns, this polling place was relocated to the nearby Love Chapel Christian Church. Reeves said he and Bailey had intended to speak with the Unicoi County Ministerial Association next month to see if other churches in the county could be utilized as polling places to replace the schools currently used.

However, Election Commissioner Paul Monk said he was not in favor of using churches as polling places. He said while schools are public facilities, churches are groups of people that can have certain “legislative ideas.”

“Traditionally, schools, which are public buildings, have always been used as polling places all over the state and all over the nation, as far as that’s concerned,” Monk said. “I certainly would not be in favor of trying to get churches. I certainly appreciate (Love Chapel Christian Church) coming to our rescue there, it’s working well for us. But trying to set up our polling places at churches is wrong.”

Reeves said he thought about the matter over the weekend and agreed with Monk’s take, adding that some people may be “offended” by the potential mix of church and state and that the use of churches could present a “philosophical or legal” problem.

Election Commission Secretary Marvin Rogers said the panel could speak with local police to see if extra security could be offered at schools on the date of the primary, but Bailey said this may infringe upon state statute prohibiting voter intimidation. Bailey said she intends to speak with other counties to get an idea of how they are addressing the issue.

“As far as I know, every county is dealing with this same thing,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the matter of schools being in session on election dates has been part of the state’s legislative program in the past, but it has often been removed before consideration with the suggestion that a solution needs to be a collaboration between local election commission offices and local school systems. 

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