School safety and security are at the forefront of public attention, and one of the greatest challenges schools face is maintaining safe and secure environments with an influx of community members on campus during election season. Schools are common polling places because they are recognizable, easily accessible, and usually, have space available. Schools must find a careful balance between maintaining the sanctity of the election process and ensuring the safety of students, faculty, and staff.
Elections at school facilities
Texas law requires that all polling places be located inside a public building, if practicable—one that is owned or controlled by the state or a political subdivision, such as a school facility [Source: Texas Election Code§ 43.031].
While there is no mandate to use a school building to conduct an election, school facilities are often selected as the place to hold all or part of an election because the facilities are often centrally located within the community and they already comply with accessibility requirements [Source: Texas Election Code §§ 43.031, .034].
A state law enacted in 2015 requires political subdivisions conducting elections on any uniform election date to use the county precincts within their territory as the polling places on Election Day. This is a departure from the previous scheme that allowed election entities to use any polling places located within their territories, even if they were not county election precincts. This provision may affect school districts that do not have a county election precinct located within their school district territory. It is recommended that districts communicate with the county and joint election partner, if applicable, during the planning stages of the election.
School districts should communicate with the city or county early in the election planning process if a school building is to be used as a polling place, and should stress the importance of minimizing disruption to school operations and ensuring the safety of students on campus.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that provides protections to people with disabilities. Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. The ADA’s provisions apply to all aspects of voting, including voter registration, site selection, and the casting of ballots, whether on Election Day or during an early voting process. Often school districts already meet ADA requirements for polling locations.
School districts should work with their local election office to determine where polling machines will be placed in a school building. For the safety of younger students, districts should consider using a central administration building or a high school campus. Ideal locations within school buildings are those that can accommodate large crowds, can remain open, and are accessible to people with disabilities.
Campus safety protocols should remain in place, including keeping exterior doors locked and not opened for visitors, including people arriving to vote. Voters should instead be directed to the official polling place entry. Ideally, school officials would suggest a location in a school building that has its own entry/exit doors to avoid members of the public walking through the entire building to get to the polling location.
Additional considerations include examining the position of polling stations as security cameras and emergency exits cannot be blocked by any voting equipment.
If a school building is used as a polling place, the district must consider the requirement to provide a curbside voting option. Voters with access and functional needs may request assistance if they are unable to enter the building, or if doing so would cause injury or harm to the voter's health. This requirement may put an additional strain on school district operations. This should be considered by school officials when selecting and planning the placement of voting booths inside the school building.
Criminal background checks
State law requires the general custodian of election records to conduct criminal background checks on election officials, staff, and temporary workers who are engaged in pre-election programming, testing, and preparation of the voting system equipment for early voting and Election Day. This includes temporary workers hired to test, store, or service voting equipment [Source: Texas Election Code § 129.051].
School districts and other educational entities may not conduct criminal background checks on their own for the election workers operating the polls on school grounds. School districts generally enter into joint election arrangements with a city or the county, which is in charge of obtaining the workers and the accessible voting machines and conducting necessary criminal background checks. If there is a concern about election workers, the school district should address the issue of criminal background checks in the joint election agreement with the city or county.
Keep in mind that election judges and clerks who work the election during early voting or on Election Day must be qualified voters—an individual who is a U.S. citizen, 18 years of age or older, has not been declared mentally incapacitated, is registered to vote, resides within the state and territory conducting the election, and has not been convicted of a felony [Source: Texas Election Code § 11.002].
Current law permits criminal background checks to be conducted on district employees and certain campus visitors; however, no current statutes specifically address conducting background checks on citizens who visit district campuses solely for the purpose of voting. Election workers will check the qualifications and identification of individuals on district property to vote.
Campus access for election workers
All polling places and access to facilities should be clearly marked for the purpose of voting; if feasible, identify a specific voter parking area. Election workers may not grant voters or any member of the public access to any part of campus beyond the voting areas, including restrooms and side exits.
Election workers should have limited access to the campus themselves; these access points should be outlined prior to the start of the election function. All polling places should be separated from offices and classrooms. Additionally, election workers should wear their identification at all times on campus.
Electioneering in parking lots
While the increased presence of individuals standing in and around the parking lot of school buildings can increase traffic and create a safety concern for the workers and the school community, state law requires an entity to allow electioneering on its premises if used as a polling place during the period when voting takes place, i.e., early voting and Election Day [Source: Texas Election Code §§ 61.003, 85.036]. Electioneering is defined as posting, using or distributing signs or literature for a candidate, measure or political party.
While electioneering cannot be prohibited altogether, the district may enact reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions for the campaign workers. For example, a district may prohibit campaign workers from putting large election signs in the ground with stakes or may prohibit campaign workers from setting up tents or trailers in the school parking lot. Additionally, electioneering cannot occur within 100 feet of an entrance to the polling place and sound amplification devices may not be used within 1,000 feet of a building used as a polling place [Source: Texas Election Code §§ 61.003, .004].
It is recommended that any restrictions imposed by the school district on electioneering be communicated in advance to the community and all election candidates.
In addition to regular campus security measures in place, all school staff should maintain a heightened awareness of suspicious activity and report these activities appropriately. One of the easiest and most effective ways to assist with this function is to seek assistance from campus-based organizations, including the PTA and other volunteer parent groups to serve as additional hall monitors or assist during morning drop off and afternoon pick up times.
Schools may determine that extra law enforcement or school-based law enforcement officers are needed. An employee should be available to unlock the facility to allow election workers into the building before the voting function begins and stay to close down and secure the facility when the voting function concludes, so schools may need to adjust staff schedules. Finally, remind faculty and staff to wear their official district identification and ensure that regular campus visitors wear their visitor badges.
If a voter wants to stay on campus or enter another area of campus after voting, district employees should then process that voter as they would any campus visitor and require the individual to go through the sign-in process. State law and the school district's policy allow a district to obtain criminal history information of campus visitors by requiring a visitor to show his or her driver’s license or using an electronic database to determine if the visitor is a registered sex offender.
School district administrators want to ensure a successful election process, but the safety of students and staff remains their primary responsibility. Election officials and district administrators must be on the same page to ensure the continuity of school operations during a period when their campuses may see an influx of visitors. It is important for both parties to set expectations and come to an agreement that meets the needs of voters and educators alike.
For information about emergency management and security, please contact Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.