Updated at 9:44 p.m.
UNION COUNTY, NJ — Half of the county’s school districts will be open during the general election next month, and most will be open during next year’s primary in June. On Thursday, the freeholder board discussed the security of the schools that will remain open while being used as polling locations.
Only three towns in Union County (Winfield, Fanwood, and Garwood) do not use schools as polling locations, Freeholder Christopher Hudak said. Twelve of the remaining districts will be closed during the general election, Nicole DiRado, the county’s Board of elections administrator, said. Meanwhile, only three districts, Elizabeth, Cranford and Hillside, will close during the June 2020 primary, she said.
In Westfield, which uses some schools as polling places, the elementary schools will see a half day of classes, while students at the intermediate and high school levels will see a full day of classes, according to the school calendar.
In a presentation to the board, DiRado explained the processes associated with selecting and securing polling locations.
“The selection of polling locations is really driven by statute, in terms of its location within a district, its proximity to the voters, its ADA compliance, and its ability to effectively house a polling location,” DiRado said. “Pursuant to this statute, a school district cannot turn us away if we want to use their facility. We are actively looking for other locations, to move [voting] out of schools. This year, we have moved nine districts out of four schools, with the help of community involvement [and] working with municipal clerks.”
DiRado said these moves have been prompted by increased security concerns, particularly in light of recent mass shootings.
“You cannot ask for ID on election day. As people are voting, anybody can walk into the schools. I think it’s a serious issue,” DiRado said.
“You would like to think that with the climate relative to gun control these days, we really have an opportunity to be proactive,” she added later. “The two things that are going to happen when something happens, is one, they’re going to blame us because we need to have a polling location there, and two, they’re going to close the schools.”
DiRado said individual municipalities are tasked with securing polling locations. “Pursuant to the statute, it’s up to the municipality and the municipal police chief, as far as what they need to do and how they feel they need to secure the polling location,” she said. “Summit puts officers at certain polling locations at the schools, so there are towns that do it.”
This year’s school schedules are already set, but DiRado suggests that school districts adjust their calendars for upcoming years.
“At this point the schedules are set for the 2019-2020 school year. But looking ahead, we could take unused snow days and close for the primary, instead of adding a day or two to Memorial Day weekend,” she said. “There is still work that can be done next year, especially in the presidential year, where turnout is going to be high.”
DiRado said her department is working with districts to minimize potential security risks.
“We do our best working with the schools in terms of, if it’s a gym, let’s get the voters in and out [of the] access point to and from the gym only, so they don’t have to intermingle with the children, they don’t have to go down a hallway,” she said. “There are situations where we can make sure that ingress and egress is as separated as it can be from the children.”
The county’s Board of Elections supports proposed state legislation urging school districts to close on election days, DiRado explained.
“I fully support the senate and assembly legislation that’s in, [and] our board supports it, in terms of asking the schools to close on primary and election day. Get the kids out of the schools, at the very least make it an in-service professional development day for the teachers and staff,” she said.
“My counterparts have been asking for this legislation for years, or just asking the school boards to do it voluntarily, and it could be done,” she added later. “I wrote my letter on behalf of my board advocating for the legislation, we sent it to our legislative delegation. … I’m hopeful.”
During the discussion, Freeholder Hudak weighed in on the issue.
“Seeing how most districts are restricting access to the schools, in light of the many school shootings that have happened in this country,” he said, “we are putting such an emphasis on new security, and one or two days a year we are permitting people, because they have the right to come and vote, to come into these buildings with no check, effectively.”
“You cannot enter a public school, usually, without an appointment or for an emergent situation to pick up a child, but as [DiRado] said, on the day of election, no ID required,” he added later. “That’s a risk.”