Topinka: Schools make poor polling places

Comptroller, Riverside police chief back finding alternate sites

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By Bob Uphues


A Riverside resident who is a state official and the village's police chief have thrown their support behind legislation that has Cook County Clerk David Orr banging his head against a wall.

On Tuesday, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel announced their support for a new law that would prohibit polling places from being located inside public and private schools.

The law, sponsored by north suburban state Rep. Jack Franks (D-63rd), is being pushed as a student safety measure.

"There is no reason to have members of the public strolling through school parking lots and entering buildings where classes are being held," said Topinka in a press release issued March 5, the day she and Franks held a press conference in Springfield announcing the legislation.

"There are government buildings, churches and other polling place locations that do not put students at risk or disrupt the school day," Topinka said. "Let's utilize them instead."

Every elementary school in North Riverside, Riverside and Brookfield — with the exception of Central School and St. Mary School in Riverside and St. Paul School in Brookfield — is used as a polling place.

Orr, who is responsible for finding and staffing polling places in Chicago's suburbs, says such legislation would create a logistical nightmare. Schools account for 36 percent of polling places in the suburbs, he said.

Schools are not only convenient for voters, they typically provide plenty of parking and accessibility that other places, such as businesses, might not be able to provide.

His solution? Have the schools make sure students are not in session on Election Day.

"A better way is to request schools that are concerned about safety to schedule either closing the school or scheduling an institute day," Orr said in an interview with the Landmark last week.

Orr said 123 suburban Cook County schools already have chosen that route. The Clerk's Office makes the dates of elections known years in advance, he said. School superintendents have plenty of opportunity to adjust the school schedule.

"This is a viable option if they plan ahead," Orr said.

Weitzel, meanwhile, gained the support of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police for the proposed legislation.

"When people enter schools, especially older schools, they have access to the whole school," said Weitzel, who added local chiefs are already being asked to provide police officers are school polling places because of safety concerns. "These schools are wide open."

One of those is Komarek School in North Riverside. While the building is sometimes closed on Election Day, it's not always possible to do that, said District 94 Superintendent Neil Pellicci.

On April 9, for example, school will be in session as residents head to the school to vote in local elections. The school erects barricades in the hallway and has had police onsite in the past, but Pellicci would prefer the polling place be moved someplace else.

Several years ago, he wrote a letter to Orr requesting that Komarek be removed as a polling place. That request was denied, he said. Meanwhile, Mater Christi School — located just blocks away and shuttered by the Chicago Archdiocese in 2005 — sits unused on Election Day.

Brookfield-LaGrange District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said it's not necessarily as easy as looking at the calendar and locking in institute days. The district has just two institute days it can shuffle around during the school year.

"The problem is it locks that into the polling day and limits what you can do," said Kuzniewski.

Pellicci said that this year, all of the schools feeding into Riverside-Brookfield High School have scheduled a joint institute day. Election Day wasn't convenient for everyone, he said, so this year school will be in session on Election Day.

District 95 has made the decision to close S.E. Gross School on Election Day.

"From a safety standpoint, we've chosen not to be in session those days," Kuzniewski said. "We use it as an institute day."

Orr said one solution could be to move non-federal elections to another day, such as Saturday. Not only would it be more convenient for working people, he said, it would probably expand the pool of people who would like to serve as election judges and administrators.

"In the long run, I'm a big advocate of voting on weekends," Orr said. It's something we might want to consider."

It's not that he is dismissing school safety, said Orr. He wants to make voting convenient and accessible to as many people as possible.

"I want to protect children," he said, "but I also want to protect democracy. No one's looking for conflicts here."

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Reader Comments

21 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Marty Longo from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: September 15th, 2013 9:43 PM

I worked as an election judge in the subarbs. My thoughts are simple-- just dont use the schools on the days the schools are being used as a polling place. Lets think about it-- election days are at most 2 times per academic year-- generally in November and in the Spring, with some school years there are only 1 election day. This is not an inconvenice for parents. Also some areas, goverment buildings and churches maynot be able to handle all the people voting-- espically during huge turn out elections like the presidential general and governor general elections. In my town for example about 85% of the polling places are schools, so to say 1 or two polling places can take the place of 8 is crazy. In some areas, espically in rural areas, there are a ;lack of public buildings so that may reduce turn out. Also in Cook County, they already considlated precients and caused delays during major elections-- we do not need to fuither considlate it futher.


Posted: March 18th, 2013 4:52 PM

I disagree with this article, technically many schools do not have school on election day if they are polling places. This can be seen in District 95 (SE Gross is a polling place) and St. Louise Catholic School. Also, the election day was set on a Tuesday because in a time before modern transportation, it would often be difficult for voters to travel to polling places, so the day was on Tuesday to allow travel time. Why should we change tradition?

Not So Long Ago  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 11:22 PM

Not so long ago, when I was five, my mother gave me a note, sent me to the corner store, and I came back safely with the items on the note and the correct amount of change. Why are we so willing to give up this way of life? John Matthews is right. Too much fear. Not sure why the average person isn't angry about giving up the peace of mind of a safe community.

their there  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 6:24 PM

<i> "There are government buildings, churches and other polling place locations that do not put students at risk or disrupt the school day," Topinka said. "Let's utilize them instead." </i> In the above sentence, "There" is correct. If Topinka said "...there students...", that would be incorrect.

there their  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 5:18 PM

I don't trust anybody who doesn't know when to use their instead of there.

mark roegner from brookfield  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 4:16 PM

i dont trust anybody with - in there name.

Jeffrey Miller from Riverside  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 2:36 PM

I wonder about the message we send our kids when we propose things like this. The message seems to be "the world is scary; you should be afraid; but if you barricade yourself into a locked enclave then you may be safe from a crazy random event". I'm not sure any of these messages are accurate. I also worry about how the drumbeat of fear will affect our children's characters and outlook on life.

Lisa Aulerich-Marciniak  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 1:21 PM

I don't think there's a need to be afraid of those things, either. I just don't think that it makes sense to lock the building all year long except on a day when we allow everyone in town in. If there's reason to lock the doors the rest of the time....does that make kids afraid of school?

John Mathews  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 9:10 AM

@Crazy World, Thank you. Best comment I've seen in a while. We're becoming a nation and society in thrall to our fears.

Crazy world  

Posted: March 14th, 2013 8:41 AM

Let's count the things we've make kids fear: walking home from school (witness the cars even at RB), going into the city, being in a school building, being in a playground, being in a park, being at NR mall, and now we are adding the act of voting?

Lisa Aulerich-Marciniak  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 10:25 PM

I'm not advocating isolating our children from the democratic process. I'm pretty sure my kids got a more authentic look at the process when I used to take them with me to my polling place when they were little than they did sitting in a classroom while adults voted in their school building. A parent voting on a Saturday can take children of any age with to see what it's all about.

Tom Jefferson  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 9:05 PM

I think it would be best if we just let the children do the voting. They are there already ,and I won't have to leave work to vote. I trust their judgement would probably be better than the adults in this town.

Laura from Riverside  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 5:08 PM

I don't think we need to isolate our children from the election process, infact I believe it is good for them to see. Also if you look back there has never been an incident in Illinois in a school on election day.

JJD from riverside  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 4:36 PM

Should we isolate our children from the democratic process of voting? If someone want to cause a problem it will be done as seen in the last school cases. We have to stop-do not lets the wacko's win our children learn from seeing adults vote- this should be a positive expierence in our schools not something to be feared. Judy Barr you should spend your energy paying the States racked up bills-oh you can't NO MONEY

mark roegner from brookfield  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 3:41 PM

rita im not going to say anything bad about you or lisa. you expressed your opinion i used facts case closed.

Rita K from Brookfield  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 3:30 PM

Lisa, roegner is a troll who just likes to stir the kettle. It is of no use to try and reason with him. He is immune to the thought that people might have valid ideas and opinions that are different from his. Watch as he says something rude about this post and proves my point.

Lisa Aulerich-Marciniak  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 2:50 PM

Mark, there's no need to assume people aren't thinking or be rude. I understand that it would take work to change this, but that doesn't make it either impossible or stupid. If it's the right think to do, then we should do what it takes. Many schools are open for many different reasons on the weekends. I would imagine that the same people who open the building for a basketball tournament or music competition could open it for an election. It only takes one person with a key.

mark roegner from brookfield  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 2:11 PM

lisa its in the constituion of the state thats why they have to change the law. if no one is there on the weekend how are they going to open the schools to vote. think before you comment.

Lisa Aulerich-Marciniak  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 1:33 PM

I've never seen a police officer where I vote. When we lock down our schools every other day of the year it doesn't seem logical to open them to everyone on a day where tempers may flare and children are in class. To me, weekend voting makes a lot of sense for many reasons.

mark roegner from brookfield  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 1:15 PM

this is a stupid idea. police are at the polling places when there is an election. the schools are safer then than a regular school cannot hold elections on a saturday or a sunday. duh

Rita K from Brookfield  

Posted: March 13th, 2013 12:17 PM

I agree that we are putting our kids at risk by opening the schools on election day. This is a national problem, not just a local one. I propose we move election day to a Saturday or Sunday. That way, if schools must still be used, the kids won't be in them.

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