Legislation to declare a school holiday on every election day in Idaho – designed to allow schools to serve as polling places without creating any danger to kids from all the strangers coming to campus – was killed in the House Education Committee this morning, after it drew strong opposition from school boards and school districts across the state.
Chief Deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said the bill, HB 196, envisioned moving teacher professional development days to election days, so teachers still could be on campus, but not students. “The desire of the bill is to remove the students from the schools to allow voting to occur in the schools, to maintain the students’ safety,” he said.
It would have applied to four dates each year: The fall and spring general election dates, plus, when a particular school district is holding a bond or levy election in March or August, those dates in that district.
“I am well aware that you guys know education much better than I do, but I want to share a little bit about the challenges of administering elections,” McGrane told the committee. “Having adequate facilities is one of the major challenges that we run into.”
Federal law requires that polling places meet accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said. In a recent audit of ADA compliance at polling places in Ada and Canyon counties, he said, most failed. A major challenge: In residential areas, often the only place available for polling is a school or a church, and churches are exempt from the ADA.
“In Bannock County, one of the polling locations is a frozen yogurt shop,” McGrane said.
During the last presidential election, McGrane said, Ada County was sued for moving five polling places; that move came in part because an elementary school principal “stated the school was just too crowded to be able to conduct voting, and I agree, I think the principal was right,” he said.
McGrane said there’s increasing pressure to move voting out of schools in areas across the state, making it difficult to conduct elections. “Nationally, there are instances where bad things have happened during voting at polling locations,” he said. “But whether the threat is real or perceived, I can say the pressure to move voting out of schools is very real.”
McGrane said an alternative to the bill would be to beef up and fund security at schools for election days.
Opposition came from many quarters, and all but one committee member, voted to kill the bill; the lone dissenter was Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise.
“A lot of our districts are now on four-day weeks, and now you’re going to take one additional day out of the middle of those weeks,” said Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding. She noted that in many of those districts, teacher professional development already has been moved to Fridays, when there’s no school, “because it’s about the students.”
Jess Harrison of the Idaho School Boards Association told the committee, “There are many schools that are not used as election sites that would be impacted by this bill.” She said for more than 50 years, state law has made determining school calendars a duty of local school boards. “All of the responses we received from our school districts and charters were opposed to this legislation,” she said.
Helen Price of the Idaho Association of School Administrators said group polled superintendents when the proposed bill only impacted the November and May election dates, and found 95 percent opposed. “Our school districts have the ability to amend the calendars as they and their communities see fit,” she said. “Over 40 percent of our respondents state that elections are not being held in school buildings.”
Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, made the motion to kill the bill. “I have no doubt that this bill has noble intentions, and protecting our children is really important, but I’m just not sure that this is really the right fix,” he said.
Rep. John McCrostie, D-Boise, said, “If we want to look at not having the concern about strangers coming into public schools for Election Day, then maybe we should be looking at vote by mail.”