Dave Wheeler: Keep Polling Places In Schools

As I watched WDAZ news at 5:00 on Monday, June 13, I was disappointed to hear that all polling sites had been removed from the schools in Grand Forks at the request of the Grand Forks school district.

I’m sure this decision was made a while ago, so part of my disappointment came from not personally finding out about this change until less than 24 hours before the primary vote was to be held.

Still, my first thought was, “Why would we not use the schools as polling sites?”

According to the TV report this request was made by the schools due to a fear of strangers coming through the buildings.

As a person in education I understand the need for safety in our schools. I tell parents all the time that the safety of their children is a priority for all of us who work in a school setting. That being said, as a property owner in Grand Forks, I really struggle with a school district requesting that their buildings not be used as polling sites.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I really struggle with a school district requesting that their buildings not be used as polling sites.[/mks_pullquote]

Even though the state of North Dakota has gone to great lengths to reduce the property tax stress on property owners throughout the state, schools are still very much dependent on property taxes to fund the work that goes on inside the walls of all our schools. I realize full well that my salary, the salaries of my teachers and everyone else who works in the setting of schools are funded in no small part from the taxpayers of Thompson, where I’m employed. The same can be said for all involved in education in Grand Forks.

If the issue is that the schools are concerned with having strangers in their buildings, I am conflicted. Every person who comes to the polling sites has to have a picture I.D. to vote, and a person’s polling site is in the neighborhood they live in. For most, their child(ren) are currently attending the school or have attended the school in the last few years.

I know that nothing is 100% because people come and go but……..”strangers?” While every face may not be familiar to those who work in the building, strangers isn’t the term I’d use for people who live in the neighborhood of a school.

In May we held a public vote in Thompson on a bond referendum to build an addition on to our school. It was a large investment for the taxpayers of our district and the number of citizens who showed up to vote was incredible. Including absentee ballots almost 1000 people voted.

Even though we came up 6 votes short of getting approval for the building project the fact that almost 1000 citizens of Thompson voted, in my eyes, was a huge victory for the community and showed that people truly care about their community and are vested in helping make decisions.

Maybe the coolest part of the process however was that the day of the vote, it was held in our school, and people from the community came through the doors from 11:00-8:00 that day.

For our students it was an incredible opportunity for them to see the process of the vote at work.

The number of elementary students who came to me that day in shock at seeing so many adults in the building and having those students asking questions about the vote was powerful to me as an educator.

I got to answer questions from 10 year olds about, “why are these people in our school?” and, “what is the vote about again?” To see so many young students engaged in the process that was happening that day was powerful to me and, if the polling site had been at City Hall or in another facility in Thompson, we wouldn’t have had those discussions.

For that very reason I think schools are the absolute best place for election services to be held in all communities. Schools allowing government to hold its work in the halls is a way of giving back to the community with this small piece of support doesn’t seem like to much to ask of our school district.

Prior to becoming a school administrator I spend 9 years in the classroom. A majority of that time was teaching social studies. As a teacher at Larimore H.S. I was lucky enough to teach Govt. for 5 years.

Studying the Constitution was a unit every year and the “right to vote” was a piece of that unit I personally emphasized with my seniors. It was a wonderful time to stress with my students that regardless of political views or philosophies, taking the time to vote and share your individual voice in elections was important.

You hear often that, “I’m only 1 vote and it really doesn’t matter if I vote or not.” My role as a teacher was to emphasize to the students that every vote counts and we all need to be proud to have that vote and to use it.

In statewide elections we only have to go back a few years and discuss the win by Senator Heidi Heitkamp over Rick Berg to see how close an election can be.

My point is that schools and teachers have role in the emphasizing to students the importance of elections and individual responsibility to vote and to take polling sites out of schools seems to go against just such teachings.

The logic which holds that voters in schools are dangerous strangers fails me.

Schools opting out as polling sites, in my opinion, is bad policy.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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