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D.C. rethinks using schools as early voting sites amid safety concerns

Voters wait to enter the polls at Ballou High School in Southeast for the 2020 election. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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The District may not use schools as early voting sites in the November general election following safety concerns from parents over using them this month for early voting in the primaries.

The reconsideration of voting locations comes amid a national push to restrict public access to schools following a deadly mass shooting in a Texas elementary school last month. It also illustrates the tension between making it harder to enter schools while also making polling locations unintimidating and accessible places to vote.

The D.C. Board of Elections first told The Washington Post on Thursday that staff had decided not to use any schools as early voting sites for the November election. On Friday, after The Post published news of that decision, spokesman Nick Jacobs said that the board is still mulling the decision of whether to use schools.

Early voting for the primaries in the District spans more than a week, launching June 10 and running until June 19. The city is using a dozen public school campuses as early voting sites and over 40 schools as Election Day voting sites on June 21. The last day of school is June 27. Visitors to D.C. schools, including parents, typically need to provide photo identification to enter, but voters only need to provide proof of residency to cast a ballot.

“It kind of pits the protocols that are important for the school administration to feel like they are running a safe school versus what election officials need to run a fair election,” said Priya Cook, a mother of two students at Bancroft Elementary in Mount Pleasant, which is being used as an early voting site.

Long lines in the 2020 election combined with a need during the coronavirus pandemic for more spacious polling locations pushed the city to seek around 30 large sites across all eight wards for early voting in the District. The Board of Elections settled on public recreation centers and libraries as well as cafeterias and gymnasiums in school buildings.

A guide to the 2022 Democratic primary election in the District

Jacobs said the board attempted to use recreation centers, but some wards did not have enough of them with ample space, forcing the city to turn to public schools. The board assessed the security needs of polling places, and paid for security guards for schools where elections officials found a need, he said.

“We need bigger areas like gymnasiums to accommodate more space and equipment, and also with covid to not have everyone too bunched up,” Jacobs said. “You could not use the proverbial church basement anymore because it was a little more compact.” After the primaries this month, the board will assess whether it operated more polling locations than necessary this election cycle, he said.

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, which consults with schools on safety plans, said public schools are frequently used as voting locations across the country, including in the District.

Safety concerns started to emerge after the Columbine High school shooting in 1999, he said, and it is now common for school districts to cancel classes for Election Day, often holding planning days for teachers so children are not in the building.

But, he said, it gets more complicated when counties and cities use schools as early voting sites for extended periods and officials cannot guard voting locations as they would school buildings on a typical day. Having police officers in voting locations, for instance, could be perceived as voter intimidation.

District schools to step up security in wake of Texas school shooting

Trump said he is not aware of safety issues that have occurred inside schools on voting days but that it presents “one more potential opportunity that you may be opening up access to someone who may have ill intentions.”

“There is not a lot of logic to it,” he said. “We are going to fortify our schools, spend millions of dollars on it, to make sure that strangers do not have access to school, except for two to three days when anyone can get it in while school is in session.” Trump offers some safety suggestions, including restricting one part of the school that ideally has its own entrance for voting.

Turnout at many of the early voting centers has been low so far. Bancroft recorded 115 early voters between June 10 and June 15. Oyster Adams Bilingual School in Northwest Washington recorded 68 ballots. And Kimball Elementary in Southeast Washington had just 46 early votes in that same period.

“If there are 10 people that show up in that voting place during a week of early voting, maybe that is not worth it,” said Michele Cerebelli, a parent of two students at Oyster Adams Bilingual School.

Cerebelli was so concerned when he heard that Oyster Adams Bilingual School would be used as a polling place throughout early voting this year that he called the assistant principal who said she had been getting many similar calls.

The school normally locks its doors during the day, Cerebelli said, but has to keep the entrance to the polling place open. “Someone claiming he is a voter can get access to the school,” Cerebelli said. “With what happened recently in Texas, I dislike the idea.”