In some states, security concerns prompt schools, churches to withdraw as polling places

(NEW YORK) — A spate of headline-grabbing school shootings and election-related threats is making some schools and churches reconsider whether it is safe to continue serving as polling locations — prompting concerns among some election officials that voters may face more difficulty casting their ballots in November and beyond.

“Churches used to be our go-to group,” Mary Jane Arrington, supervisor of elections in Florida’s Osceola County, told ABC News. “And now they have become harder and harder to talk them into letting us be there.”

With just six weeks until Election Day, ABC News found that several states — including Florida, Texas, Michigan and New Jersey — are seeing long-time polling locations either decline to serve as polling centers this election cycle, or express interest in phasing themselves out of the process in future cycles.

‘We’re trying to protect ourselves’

In Monmouth County, New Jersey, Brian Graime of the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District said he is working with town officials to remove two schools currently serving as polling locations from the list of polling centers for the next election cycle.

Graime, the school district’s Board of Education president, said the growing number of potential threat actors has made it difficult to justify the foot traffic at schools on election days.

“Could it be somebody that’s there to vote? Could it be somebody who’s there to disrupt the voting? Could it be that one-in-a-million situation that has unfortunately occurred in Parkland, Sandy Hook, and Uvalde?” Graime said. “We do threat assessments constantly in our school district. We’re trying to protect ourselves from everything.”

Since 2020, election workers across the country have reported facing a wave of intimidation and threats of physical violence by activists still intent on contesting the 2020 presidential election. The tactics have left some officials scrambling to secure polling locations for the upcoming midterms.

“Part of it is security,” said Arrington. “I think the other part is our candidates and voters can’t behave.”

Arrington told ABC News that because Osceola has become one of Florida’s fastest-growing counties, securing polling locations is one of the biggest challenges officials are facing this election cycle.

“We don’t have a lot of options,” said Arrington.

As a result, she said the county has had to “rely more and more on schools,” which she said are usually a last resort.

Osceola is one of three Florida counties in which officials told ABC News that Catholic churches have been declining to serve as polling centers for the midterm elections. The directive came from the local diocese, officials said. The Orlando diocese did not respond to ABC News’ multiple requests for comment.

An official with Polk County told ABC News they have seen “many polling locations drop out,” including all of the Catholic churches that had served as polling locations for decades.

‘An added layer of complexity’

John Cohen, a former Homeland Security official who is now an ABC News consultant, said that the increase in calls for violence directed at election officials has prompted officials to try to increase security and take other measures to safeguard staffers and systems.

“At the same time, extremists are conflating calls for violence directed at the election infrastructure with other extremist ideological narratives, particularly focusing on the Jewish community, schools, and other faith-based institutions,” said Cohen. “And so, in the cases where a polling spot is in a church or synagogue or a school, there is an added layer of complexity, both from a prevention perspective and from a security measures perspective.”

The concern over school and church safety has in some cases driven a wedge between school administrators and election officials. ABC News obtained email exchanges and letters between school officials in New Jersey and the Union County Board of Elections, in which they grappled over who should foot the bill for increased Election Day security.

“While the district understands and respects the importance of providing voters with access to polling locations, our district faces additional costs and security concerns associated with voting in our schools,” wrote Janet Walling, the Superintendent of Mountainside School District in an email to the Union County Board of Elections.

After Walling suggested the county use other polling locations, the Union County Board of Elections reached out to a local church — but were turned down because “they [were] not receptive to serving as a polling location,” according to an email exchange.

“The schools are voicing concern over security on Election Day, and their primary concern is strangers coming in and out of the building unchecked, and possibly intermingling with the students,” Nicole Dirado, a Union County election administrator, told ABC News.

Under New Jersey law, public buildings like schools are considered the first priority for polling sites, and schools are mandated to open their doors as polling locations.

But an increasing number of school districts have expressed concerns about serving as polling locations and have asked local municipalities to find alternative locations — including at least two other school districts in Monmouth County, the county’s elections board administrator, Robin Major, told ABC News.

The ones that are able to find alternative sites and back out are lucky, Major said, because most schools — especially ones in smaller rural towns — are unable to pull out even if they want to because “they simply don’t have many other options.”

A further challenge, said Major, is that the state’s election offices “try not to disrupt these sites that voters are used to going to” as Election Day approaches, in order to keep from disenfranchising voters that might not get notified of the change in time.

‘A template’ for other states

In Texas, as the midterms draw closer, many of the state’s 254 counties have begun submitting designated polling locations to the secretary of state’s office for final approval — but this year, they, too, are facing heightened concerns from school boards.

“Our office has received calls from county election officials indicating that some of their school district officials do not want school campuses used as polling places in the upcoming elections,” said Sam Taylor, spokesperson for Texas Secretary of State John Scott.

Among the questions being raised: Should kids enrolled in public schools that are designated as polling places attend school on Election Day?

“There have been a few school districts that are either trying to reduce the number of polling places at schools, or declare Election Day a school holiday to address security concerns,” Taylor told ABC News.

For example, in Bexar County — home to San Antonio — four local districts have now made Election Day a holiday, and schools will be closed for the day.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, the withdrawal of some schools as polling places has prompted officials to turn to churches, community centers, and municipal buildings as alternatives.

Other states are attempting to reduce Election Day confrontations by encouraging voters to return their ballots by mail. In Utah, for example, the vast majority of voters use mail-in voting, which became widespread after legislation was passed in 2014 making it easier to vote by mail. Since then, the state has eliminated the use of schools as polling centers, which has allowed it to sidestep some security issues.

“Salt Lake County would not be able to find enough [election]-compliant buildings to accommodate traditional polling locations without using schools with our current voter population,” said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. “Our system is definitely a template for how states can conduct elections in a safer and less intrusive manner.”

Regardless of where people vote, Cohen said it’s critical to keep polling places both safe and accessible.

“The challenge is that increasingly these attacks have been directed at places where the public congregates,” said Cohen. “And those who own and operate those facilities have to balance the security with the ability to continue to have these locations accessible when it comes to the election process.”

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