, Salem, MA

October 8, 2013

Our view: Keep polling places at Peabody schools

The Salem News

---- — The Peabody School Committee and the city’s Board of Registrars need to come to an agreement that keeps polling places on school grounds — to save taxpayers money, to keep voting sites convenient and consistent, and to nurture and respect the democratic process.

The School Committee, which will discuss the issue at its meeting tonight, first broached the idea in May, voting 4 to 1 to send a letter to the Board of Registrars asking that schools no longer be used as polling places. Seven schools are currently used for voting: Welch, South Memorial, Higgins Middle School, Peabody High, McCarthy, West Memorial and Burke.

“The world is different,” committee member Brandi Carpenter said at the time. “We’re not the same as we were 50 years ago. Citing shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook in Connecticut, she said, “the schools are the most vulnerable buildings in our city.” On Election Day, when strangers are on campus, “we’re wide open,” she said.

Traffic is also a concern, said Carpenter, who noted that cities like Worcester have had success setting up voting booths at private businesses such as supermarkets.

While we respect and share Carpenter’s concern for the city’s children, barring citizens from property they pay for on a day where they are exercising one of the country’s most cherished rights would be a mistake.

City Clerk Tim Spanos has also balked at the idea, noting such a change would affect more than 18,000 voters — more than half the city electorate — and would cost taxpayers $10,000.

It would also mean an end to a long tradition: Peabody and other communities have used schools as voting places for years, to little ill effect. Traffic can be controlled, and the disruption in the school day can be managed. And that disruption can actually be an education — it’s a chance for young people who read about democracy in textbooks to see the real thing. Voting is leadership in action, and the more students can be exposed to it, the better. Casting a ballot on school grounds also ties residents to their votes; with their use as classrooms, sports venues and civic gathering places, schools are essentially the community’s public square.

There is, however, room for compromise.

Earlier this month, the Board of Registrars Chairperson Judith Blodgett called the idea “impractical” in a letter to the School Committee, saying voting locations should “remain as constant as possible, to avoid voter confusion and support voter turnout.”

The registrars offered to work with the School Committee members to address their concerns.

“Currently, the police presence at schools on Election Day is greater than at any other time of the year,” Blodgett wrote. “If this is still insufficient, we can discuss the option of providing additional security measures during school.”

Blodgett also suggested scheduling teacher development days for the primary elections in September, “just as this option is used for final elections in November, which means schools will be closed for the day.”

The registrars also proposed concrete changes: moving Ward 4, Precinct 3 from Peabody High School to Temple Beth Shalom; moving Ward 5, Precinct 1 from Kiley School to Temple Ner Tamid; moving Ward 5, Precinct 3 from McCarthy School to either Temple Ner Tamid or West Congregational Church; and moving Ward 6, Precinct 1 from West Memorial School to the West Congregational Church or the Community Covenant Church.

These are proposals worth considering, and it’s good to know there’s an avenue for compromise here (even if none of the religious institutions named above have agreed to house a polling place).

The School Committee should take the registrars’ offer seriously. It would be a shame — and a mistake — to upend a decades-long practice of having voters cast their ballots where much of their tax money is spent, and where the next generation of citizens is being shaped.