Will security-conscious schools elect to opt out as polling places?

Schools have long been popular choices for polling places in their communities for a variety of reasons, including their size, visible locations, adequate parking and accessibility for the disabled.

But will a rising emphasis on school security end the traditional role the neighborhood institutions play on Election Day?

The current climate after a mass shooting in Florida and numerous threats against suburban schools likely will cause some changes but probably not end schools' role in elections, county clerks and election commissions say.

Officials at the Cook County clerk's office say they couldn't run an election without schools - their compliance with the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act being a key reason. For many precincts, there aren't viable alternatives.

Schools make up 60 percent of polling places in Cook County. In the suburban parts of the county, 37 percent of polling places are at schools.

But there and in the collar counties, there's a sensitivity to concerns about safety and security that keeps officials open to alternatives.

The use of schools as polling places in DuPage County has dropped dramatically in the past 14 years, from 200 in 2004 to about 120 in 2008, and just 37 in the March 20 primary. The changes came in response to the public's school safety concerns, said Joseph H. Sobecki, executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission.

"For each polling location, the election commission seeks to use a room with outside access and parking, separate from the main school and entrance," Sobecki added.

Lake County Clerk Carla Wyckoff said several polling places have been moved from schools in recent years, but 14 remain at schools. Having to come up with alternatives for those 14 sites would be a hardship, she added.

In cases where schools have remained the only option for a polling place, election officials in Lake, Cook and DuPage counties have recommended the schools schedule a holiday or institute day.

Back in 2001, the DuPage Election Commission even sought legislation to require it, but the measure failed due to strong opposition from school leaders, Sobecki said.

But some suburban schools take the day off anyway. For last week's primary, Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 held an institute day as it has for elections since the 2014-15 school year, while Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 made it a holiday for students and staff.

District 54 spokeswoman Terri McHugh said polling places require that voters be allowed to enter through an unlocked door, while district policy bans unlocked doors on attendance days.

Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 were among the districts that held classes last Tuesday as schools were used as polling places. The districts isolated the areas used as polling places from the rest of the schools.

While election judges are in charge of the integrity of the polling places, school district staff members watch that the division from the rest of the school stays secure, officials said.

District 15 spokeswoman Morgan Delack said the district's junior highs already have police working as school resource officers who are likely more vigilant of the polling area on Election Day.

District 15 traditionally has scheduled days off for presidential elections due to the greater volume of voters. No such day off has been scheduled for the gubernatorial election in November, but it's not too late for the school board to set one if members believe it would be beneficial, Delack added.

District 211 spokesman Tom Petersen said the district is proud its schools serve as centers for their respective communities and are happy to fulfill its civic duty by providing polling places. Historically, 18-year-old students at the participating schools have been able to learn about the democratic process firsthand by serving as election judges, he added.

Nevertheless, given the changing climate, the district would be open to any discussion with the Cook County clerk's office to identify alternative sites, Petersen said.

"This is a different time and a different era," he added.

• Daily Herald staff writers Robert Sanchez and Lee Filas contributed to this report.

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