Voters cast ballots at Colonial Heights Middle School. Ned Jilton II photo.
BLOUNTVILLE — Local election officials said Tuesday that they favor closing schools on all election days, as an added security measure.
Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher, who currently serves as legislative director for the Tennessee Association of Election Officials, said he has been talking with state lawmakers about the issue.
“I am currently speaking with members of the General Assembly to adopt legislation that will require that schools be closed to students on Election Day,” Booher told the Times-News late last week. “In doing so our association of 95 counties understands the importance of being a partner with the various local education associations and coordinating with them any legislation that may move forward.”
On Tuesday Booher broached the subject with the Sullivan County Election Commission during the group’s monthly meeting.
Added security in schools that serve as polling places has been in the news lately because a presidential commission has been hearing from election officials across the country worried about schools trying to move balloting out of their buildings.
Some schools nationwide want to end their traditional role as polling places because of security concerns since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, leaving their communities without easy alternatives for voting sites.
Ten Sullivan County schools and three Bristol, Tenn., schools serve as polling places in federal, state and local elections, although none currently do in Kingsport.
“Ultimately, a school is our only option as a viable location for voting in many communities,” Booher said. “In the future, the election commission will remain open to new ideas and approaches to better serve the public in a manner that offers accurate, fair, honest, and safe elections.”
Booher pointed out Tennessee law actually directs that the county election commission is to specifically utilize public schools and other public buildings for polling places.
“Schools have historically been viewed by the public as central to the various communities throughout the county and as such are easily located by and accessible to voters,” Booher said. “The election commission is dedicated to serving the public in a manner that makes voting as accessible as possible; therefore, pursuant to state law we have utilized schools when no other location or building in a community is available that provides convenience and accessibility as a voting location”
Local schools have typically been closed to students during federal elections, but not during party primaries and municipal elections.
Booher said the election commission has encouraged local school administrations to adopt a calendar that either closes schools or schedules staff service days on Election Day — but he and the commission realize adoption of a school calendar requires consideration of many factors.
“It is unfortunate that so many tragic events have occurred at schools throughout the country in recent years and the election commission has taken notice of this as we prepare for each election,” Booher said. “Each of the commissioners and I as administrator have children, grandchildren, and family members in our schools and we understand first hand the desire to maintain safety and security for school personnel and students. As a result we proactively encourage and work with school administrators and law enforcement in an effort to maintain safety and security throughout an Election Day. I have personally walked through our schools with law enforcement and school administrators in order to identify how we can maintain and increase security. I have witnessed first hand the professionalism and concern for the safety of our children by dedicated school administrators and staff. The election commission is especially thankful for the understanding and cooperation each of these individuals have shown, as together we serve the public in our respective roles.”