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posted: 2/7/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Schools needed as polling places

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  • Voters leave a polling place set up at Cotton Creek School in Island Lake. Daily Herald file photo/Paul Valade

    Voters leave a polling place set up at Cotton Creek School in Island Lake. Daily Herald file photo/Paul Valade

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Drop by any suburban school on a weekday and you'll be greeted by a display of protection that includes locked entrances, security cameras, a guard asking for ID or a combination of the three.

Except on Election Day.

Once or twice a year, schools that double as polling places allow the public to enter freely to cast ballots, bypassing some of the usual security measures. In an era of school shootings, it's legitimate to ask whether this is wise -- though the answer may not be as simple as it might appear on the surface.

This is the conflict for a proposal from state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo that would let school boards opt out of having their buildings used for voting. As well intentioned as the idea is, the bill -- while perhaps adding a measure of safety -- would severely crimp a process prized by Americans and essential to our democracy. Roughly one-third of polling places are schools; in suburban Cook County the number is 36 percent. Finding alternatives would be difficult, especially in rural and developing areas that are short on public and private buildings that meet the requirements for size, proximity and handicapped accessibility.

Any proposal making it more difficult to vote requires a good deal of skepticism. Franks made a strong assertion when he told The Associated Press that "protecting children from harm is the most fundamental and basic duty of any government." But the rights of children to safety and of electors to a simple voting process can and must coexist.

It hurts to think that despite even the toughest security measures, people with guns and an intent to do harm cannot always be stopped from getting into a school building. The Sandy Hook tragedy comes to mind. Schools are not fortresses, and they aren't meant to be. Already, they invite the public to attend concerts, games, plays, open houses and book fairs that, whether on school time or after hours, leave children at least as vulnerable as they are on Election Day, when, it must be noted, access to school property still is monitored and controlled.

If officials do not want to mix polling with school days, they have the option of scheduling teacher institute or nonattendance days, and a significant portion of suburban schools already build such dates into their calendars. This option has the added benefit of giving teens a chance to serve as election judges and engage them in the process.

Districts that do host elections on school days have an educational perk as well: Students seeing voters in action get a real-life civics lesson -- no field trip needed.

Polling can be handled safely in schools that have appropriate security in place. Some use alternative entrances and confine the voting to a secure area, such as a gym.

Reducing the use of schools would fly in the face of a January report by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which recommends increasing the number of schools used as polling places to encourage more people to cast a ballot. With the abysmal percentages we're seeing at the polls, Illinois shouldn't make it harder to vote, and local officials on-site can still keep children safe without having to.

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