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Suffolk County Offers To Remove Polling Sites From Elementary Schools

Alexander F. Yuan

Suffolk County has started to remove polling sites from elementary schools. A voting site at a Selden elementary school was the first moved.

Nick LaLota, Republican commissioner of the bipartisan Suffolk County Board of Elections, said the move is to keep voters from interacting with students during elections.

“Since school shootings have become an issue, a lot of parents, teachers, administrators, school board members have wanted to distance the public from those children,” LaLota said. “They've invested a lot of resources in hiring security, creating physical barriers, having surveillance cameras and other things to make their facilities safer.

“But on a couple of days a year, they have to take down those security measures and allow the public at large to have access, either to the entire building or to portions of the building, which tend to only increase the interaction between the unchecked public and the kids,” he continued.

Nearly two-thirds of Suffolk County’s 333 voting sites are at schools. A third of those are at elementary schools. The county will focus first on elementary schools, where LaLota said the student population is most vulnerable.

Starting in April, the Stagecoach Elementary School in Selden will not house a voting site.

Suffolk County Legislator Nick Caracappa told the Times Beacon Record that he had pushed for this over 10 years ago when he was a school board member in Middle Country. Now, LaLota said school districts would have to request to have a polling site relocated. He said no site is being eliminated.

That means the county will have to find alternative sites with as much accessibility, parking and large open spaces for ballot machines.

Voters will receive a postcard in the mail to inform them of the polling place change.

In 2014, several high-profile school shootings and threats of terrorism had pushed New York lawmakers to draft legislation to protect students, but legislation to relocate or remove polling sites from schools has languished for years.

At least three bipartisan bills failed in 2019. State Senator Todd Kaminsky of Long Beach proposed a bill that would prevent schools from acting as polling places while class was in session or when students were present. Senator Rob Ortt, who is now the Republican Minority Leader, wanted to prohibit schools from housing polling places completely. Neither made it out of committee even though schools often shoulder the increased costs to bolster security on voting days.

David Bernardo, the superintendent of South Huntington schools, said he wants his schools to be next on the list.

“We definitely want people to have an easier time voting, but we've got it, we've got to figure out a way to do it in places that there aren't schools because it's the most vulnerable of our populations in schools. Right?” Bernardo asked. “We want to keep them the safest from the outside.”

Bernardo closed school buildings, as do many districts, during the last general election to keep students and staff safe.

Closing elementary schools is another solution being looked at during primary elections, which are typically held in June, and special elections, which can be any month of the year.

“It's crazy when you think of all the safety precautions we go through in terms of screening visitors and everything from checking IDs to ensuring that nowadays temperatures checked and everything else, and those things you're not allowed to do during election time, because obviously, they don't want to deter people from coming to the polls,” Bernardo said.

“So the things that invite people to the polls with ease are the very same things that cause the dangerous situations in schools,” he continued. “They're just diametrically opposed ends.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.