Schools as Polling Locations Poses Safety Concerns

With high voter turnout anticipated this November, some Texas school districts are opting to close their campuses on Election Day because of safety concerns.

Many campuses across Texas were polling locations for run-off elections on May 24, 2022, the day of the school shooting in Uvalde. Although Robb Elementary, the location of the tragedy, was not a polling location, events that day highlight the potential vulnerabilities schools face when hundreds of adults come to a campus to vote.

“As a former principal myself, and teacher, the instructional time is really, really difficult,” said Richardson ISD trustee Megan Timme during a June board meeting, where the logistics of schools as polling locations were discussed.

Administrators must consider the increase in car and foot traffic throughout the school day, which impacts student safety and the quality of instruction. Timme said students are often moved to different areas on campus to keep them secure during voting, thus interrupting routines.

Texas law and TASB guidance on elections

Texas election law specifies that school districts must make campuses available as polling locations; however, schools can determine what parts of campus will be used to minimize interactions with the public. Schools cannot have voters on campus go through regular security checks, such as the Raptor system. Election workers do require voters to present acceptable identification. TASB Legal Service offers guidance (pdf) for districts on compliance with the Texas Election Code.

Richardson ISD, which has 29 facilities used as polling locations, has historically closed for staff professional development on the first Tuesday in November. The trustees approved a resolution to propose that lawmakers consider changes in state law that would ensure that students do not need to be on campus during any election day. The district served as a polling location on May 24, with many staff and parents expressing concern since then about schools being open to strangers when students are in the buildings.

Liz Morris, the Richardson ISD legislative liaison, described to the board during the June meeting three ways state legislation could be amended to address those safety concerns:

  • Move all elections, except the second Tuesday in November, to Saturdays. This is already a day used for bond and school board elections.
  • Give school districts the option to not use campuses as polling locations.
  • Allow districts to close schools without penalty for missed instructional days.

School safety versus voting rights

Dallas ISD trustees will consider a calendar change to close all school campuses to students on Election Day after a lengthy discussion on school safety at their Aug. 11 board briefing. Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde prefaced her recommendation by noting the Nov. 8 election could bring lots of people to the polls. “Rumor is there will be a lot of people showing up to vote,” she said.

Even before Uvalde, districts were taking precautions for election days. The Highland Park ISD Board of Trustees voted last December to close all campuses to students on Nov. 8 and use the day for staff development. The board notes stated this was done “out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of student safety.”

Schools have a significant role in the community and board members in both Dallas and Richardson expressed concerns about disenfranchising voters by limiting polling locations.

“While I want to express again that I believe that the majority, if not all, of voters who want to come in and exercise that right to vote are doing so with the purest intentions,” Richardson ISD Interim Superintendent Tabitha Branum said in the August meeting, “we also know that during that time, as accessible as we have to have our buildings for voters, that it does leave our buildings vulnerable.”

This article was first published on Aug. 22, 2022.

What Do District Leaders Need to Know about Using Campuses as Polling Places?

Review TASB’s full guidance available at School Law eSource.

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