SB 82: K-12 school buildings could be banned as Indiana polling places by 2024, based on risk to students

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Arlington Heights Elementary School, where voters in the Bloomington 14 precinct cast their ballots shortly after polls opened at 6 a.m. on Nov. 5, 2019. If SB 82 is passed, the school would not be eligible as a polling location starting in 2024.  (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Last Thursday’s meeting of Monroe County’s election board included an alert from board member Carolyn VandeWiele about a bill that’s been introduced for this year’s session of Indiana’s General Assembly.

Senate Bill 82 would, starting in Jan. 1, 2024, ban the use of elementary and secondary schools as polling locations. The motivation for the bill is security, according to its sponsor, Sen. Rick Niemeyer (R).

Election board members on Thursday indicated they were prepared to advocate against the bill. County clerk Nicole Browne said she would be making her concerns known to state officials during the legislative session. Board member Hal Turner told Browne he was happy to have her convey his concerns about the bill in her conversations with state legislators.

At December’s election board meeting, Browne described some of the advantages of schools as polling locations. Among them: School buildings meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as those of the Help America Vote Act.

Niemeyer represents Senate District 6, which includes portions of Lake, Newton and Benton counties in the northwest corner of the state. In an interview on Friday, Niemeyer told The Beacon the motivation for the legislation is security.

For voting locations in his district, Niemeyer said, there’s not much of a security check until prospective voters are already well inside the building. That control comes when they approach the voting table, so their ID can be checked to verify they’re in the right precinct and they’re eligible to vote, he said.

At any other time when a member of the public might want to go into the school, they can’t possibly get into the building without someone authorizing entry, Niemeyer said. Parents and school officials he’s heard from are all in support of moving polling locations out of schools, he added.

“I think this is asking for trouble down the line,” Niemeyer said. The times for pick-up and drop-off for a normal school day coincide with the periods of heavier turnout, he said. Niemeyer pointed to other public buildings like fire stations and town halls that can serve as polling locations.

Here in Monroe County, it was concerns about security in schools on election days that led Monroe County Community School Corporation to schedule teacher in-service on primary and general election days. That’s according to school board member Sue Wanzer.

Because polling sites are required to be comply with accessibility requirements, Wanzer told The Beacon, the only way to have voters come into buildings was through the main entrances—unless improvements were made to the auxiliary entrances. Those renovations would have been cost prohibitive, she said. Allowing voters into buildings through main entrances would have potentially allowed voters contact with students in the building.

Holding teacher in-service days on election day, instead of conducting classes,  was a way to address the security concerns while still being a good partner with the county’s election board, Wanzer said.

Based on discussions at its last two meetings, Monroe County’s election board has heard from at least one school in the county, in the Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation, that does not want the building used as a polling location.

According VandeWiele’s meeting remarks, Edgewood High School officials would prefer that the building not be used as a polling station. That’s why the board has recently explored using the Ellettsville town hall, instead of the high school, as a polling location.

A final decision on polling locations in Monroe County for 2020 will be made next month. But based on discussion at its meeting on Thursday, it look like the board will stay with Edgewood High School as a polling location. That’s due in part to a $600 cost related to the town hall location—one day’s worth of traffic control by the police department. The traffic control would help make the left turn into the town hall easier for motorists.

If enacted, Niemeyer’s bill would have an impact on Monroe County, which uses several K-12 schools as polling locations. For the 2018 general election in Monroe County, 31 out of 82 precincts (37.8 percent) used K-12 schools for polls. Of course, some polling locations serve more than one precinct. Of the 35 locations used, 11 (31.4 percent) were in K-12 schools.

Percentages elsewhere in the state could be lower. About half of the 92 counties across the state responded to a recent survey on 2018 general election polling sites, according to the bill’s fiscal impact statement.  About 14 percent of responding counties had polling locations in elementary or secondary schools. The breakdown was 8.5 percent in elementary schools and 5.4 percent in secondary schools.

This year’s bill is similar to one that Niemeyer introduced last year, which died in committee.  One big difference between this year’s bill and last year’s is the lead time for enactment of the prohibition of schools as polling places. If it had passed, last year’s bill would have made schools ineligible as polling locations in 2020.

This year’s bill would allow a county to use schools as polling stations through the end of 2023, making them ineligible starting in 2024. Accompanying the longer timeframe for implementation is a provision in the bill that would, in the interim, allow school officials to request formally that their building not be used a a polling station, with a mandatory response from the county.

Currently, a county can use K-12 schools as polling sites, even if school officials would prefer that their buildings not be used that way. The state statute reads: “School buildings, fire stations, and all other public buildings shall be made available without charge to a county for holding an election.”

This time around, Niemeyer told The Beacon, he’s hoping to get the bill passed, even though this year’s legislative session is a short one, because it’s an even-numbered year. Under state statute, the session has to be wrapped up by March 15.

Niemeyer said, “We need to really actively go after moving polling places out of schools.” The bill has been referred to the Elections Committee, which is chaired by Greg Walker (R). Walker represents District 41, which includes Columbus.

Niemeyer said he plans to meet with Walker on Monday to talk about the bill.

If the bill winds up getting enacted, that could give added impetus to the idea of establishing a system of vote centers in Monroe County. A vote center system is supposed to require fewer polling locations.

A vote center is a polling place where any eligible voter in the county can vote. They’re connected through the internet, so that when someone votes, the electronic poll books at all centers are updated, to prevent someone from voting more than once.

Generally, the vote center approach is supposed to cost less, because fewer polling sites, thus fewer voting machines and fewer election workers are needed. Convenience for voters is also a benefit that is touted for vote centers.

Of Indiana’s 92 counties, 39 of them have adopted a vote center approach.

The question of all voting locations could become moot, if a vote-by-mail-only system were adopted. Such a system, like the one that has been implemented in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Hawaii, would eliminate bricks-and-mortar polling locations.

But recent proposals in the Indiana General Assembly along those lines have not gone anywhere.

In 2018 Rep. Clyde Kersey (D) sponsored a bill (HB 1347)  that would require elections to be conducted by mail. It died in committee. So did a similar senate bill that same year (SB 427), which was  sponsored by Sen. Karen Tallian (D).

In 2019, Pat Boy (D) introduced a vote-by-mail-only bill  (HB 1504) that also died in committee.