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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nashua moves polling locations to increase school safety

NASHUA – Driven by concerns about school safety across the country, Nashua will move Election Day voting out of two elementary schools and into new locations this fall.

The Board of Aldermen on Tuesday approved a request from City Clerk Paul Bergeron to change the polling locations in Ward 3 and Ward 5, moving voting booths out of school buildings and into churches in the two wards. ...

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NASHUA – Driven by concerns about school safety across the country, Nashua will move Election Day voting out of two elementary schools and into new locations this fall.

The Board of Aldermen on Tuesday approved a request from City Clerk Paul Bergeron to change the polling locations in Ward 3 and Ward 5, moving voting booths out of school buildings and into churches in the two wards.

The city also will hire police officers to work security details at seven other school buildings used as polling places around the city. The changes will be visible as early as the September primary election.

Nashua School Superintendent Mark Conrad said the moves are intended to assuage fears from parents and staff about easy access to school buildings while children are in the building.

“Parents want to know that we’re controlling access to who comes into the schools their children are in,” he said.

Throughout the U.S., a number of schools have moved to end their traditional role as polling places since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

It’s hard to tell how widespread school voting restrictions have become; The Associated Press reported in January that more than three dozen U.S. schools either had either eliminated voting or considered doing so because of Sandy Hook.

Officials who were called to speak before the Presidential Commission on Election Administration several months ago repeatedly testified that the issue poses a growing problem.

“Schools are less and less inclined to want to make those facilities locations for voting, because you have access from people coming in off the street,” Ohio Secretary of State John Husted said at the commission’s Cincinnati meeting in September.

In Nashua schools, administrators have instituted “full perimeter security,” meaning that on most days, visitors must check in at the main entrance to gain access to the building. Yet on election days, procedures are more lax to accommodate voting.

Election activity also can be disruptive; in some cases, cafeteria food must be bagged and brought to classrooms, and parking can be an issue for parents, voters and election workers, Conrad said.

The problem is less pronounced during large general elections because students in Nashua are allowed to stay home for the day. But when school is in session – as it will be during the Sept. 9 primary – voters are present while classes are being held.

School buildings have been used as polling sites in all nine of Nashua’s wards.

For future elections, the polling site in Ward 3 will move from Amherst Street Elementary School to First Baptist Church of Nashua at 121 Manchester St. In Ward 5, election activity will move from Main Dunstable Elementary School to CrossWay Christian Church at 503 Main Dunstable Road.

Bergeron said Ward 3 was a strong candidate for relocation because Amherst Street Elementary School is the only polling site in the city where tables, chairs and other furniture aren’t already stored on the grounds. First Baptist Church, the new location, has sufficient hall space and parking to meet the city’s needs, and the entrance is handicapped-accessible, just like the school – another major concern on voting day.

The church also has a telephone jack that will allow the city to install a handicapped-accessible voting system, which operates using a fax machine.

In Ward 5, Main Dunstable Elementary School has long been one of the most problematic voting sites in the city because space is limited in the cafeteria, where voting takes place. The quarters are so cramped that the city can’t currently set up enough voting booths to meet requirements under state law.

Voters in Ward 1 also will cast ballots in a new location in September, although the change isn’t related to school security. A major renovation project is underway at the Broad Street Elementary School, which has traditionally served as the polling place for the ward.

As a result, election activity will temporarily move to Birch Hill Elementary School for the Sept. 9 state primary election and the general election in November.

The city will notify all registered voters in Wards 1, 3 and 5 that polling locations have changed. Notices will be mailed two weeks before the September election, and public announcements will appear on the city’s website and on public access television.

If things go smoothly in Ward 3 and Ward 5 this year, Bergeron said the city will consider relocating other polling places in the future.

That task might prove more challenging in areas such as Ward 9, where New Searles Elementary School is the designated polling place. Bergeron said he has been unable to identify another suitable location in the ward. One solution might be shifting the boundaries of the ward in ways that don’t change the population in order to move polling to another site.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said it’s up to local officials to decide which sites are the most suitable in their communities. Scanlan said Nashua isn’t the only community wrestling with the question of whether to continue holding elections in public schools.

“I am aware that it’s an issue that is of concern, safety of children and making sure that the voting population is not directly in contact with the student population,” he said.

Two years ago, Merrimack consolidated its three polling places – including two churches – to a single location at Merrimack High School. However, it cancels school on voting day.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Jim Haddadin can be reached at 594-6589 or jhaddadin@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Haddadin on Twitter (@Telegraph_JimH).