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July 11, 2013

City solicitor: Peabody schools have right to ban voting

PEABODY — Voters of Peabody, we need to have a talk. About us.

That’s the message the School Committee is sending to city officials, including the Board of Registrars, regarding the longtime Election Day practice of setting up ballot boxes and voting booths in schools across the city. It comes now in the wake of a legal opinion from City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski that board members believe may give them the authority to ban voting in the schools.

Even so, at Tuesday’s meeting School Committee member Ed Charest offered a caution after the board agreed to seek a meeting with the registrars and city councilors. “It’s a discussion. ... It’s not a threat,” he said.

Colleague Dave McGeney added that there is no intention to “ram it down the city’s throat. ... We know what we want, and how we get there we need to discuss.”

Member Brandi Carpenter raised the issue initially at a meeting in May, citing the difficulties that voting in the schools presents for the administration. Safety is a major consideration, she said, noting the increased traffic on Election Day and the fact that unknown adults are entering the buildings.

Carpenter cited events such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings as increasing the need for security. And she noted that cities such as Worcester have been successful in setting up voting booths in supermarkets, where people are likely to be anyway and where the owners are only too happy to draw crowds.

City Clerk Tim Spanos has raised objections, however, suggesting that the change will inconvenience voters — the very taxpayers who pay for the schools — and the changeover would be difficult and needlessly expensive.

Asked whether the school board has the authority to ban voting in schools, Smerczynski said the answer is, “generally speaking, yes.”

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