Schools opt to open on Election Day

Shenandoah County Public Schools plan to stay open on Election Day despite concerns raised about voter traffic in Woodstock.

The School Board recently approved the division’s 2015-2016 calendar that leaves Nov. 3 open as a regular school day. This would mark the first time since 2008 that the school system opened on Election Day.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Ebbie Linaburg said Tuesday that the topic of opening on Election Day did not come up as a major issue during the board’s discussion of the calendar earlier this year.

“At this point, only two of our 10 schools are election sites,” Linaburg said. “The other eight schools are not election sites, so we do have to balance how many students are impacted versus all those things.”

Officials have discussed making parking accommodations at the Central campus by leaving spaces closer to the polling site open to voters, Linaburg said.

The School Board hasn’t met to talk about the matter since District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey raised the issue Thursday after Superintendent Jeremy Raley presented his proposed fiscal 2016 budget to supervisors. The School Board would have to take action to change the calendar if it decided to close on Election Day in November, Linaburg said.

Schools have stayed open when the county holds town elections in May, Linaburg noted, but acknowledged that turnout might be lower at those times.

“But the way the gyms are set up, they have separate entrances and you don’t have to go through the school to get to the election point,” Linaburg said. “You can come through the gym doors and so we can isolate those parts of the school.”

Shenandoah County General Registrar Lisa McDonald recalled that around 2007-2008 the Electoral Board talked to the School Board about using schools as polling places. The county began to use Central High School as a polling location for District 4, which covers the Woodstock area, and Strasburg High School for District 6 in 2008, McDonald said. Beginning that year, the county school system did not hold classes on the day of the November elections, McDonald said.

The registrar pointed out that leaving schools open raises some safety issues in that part of the building which is open to the public. Additionally, closing a school for an emergency would disrupt the voting process, McDonald said.

Voter turnout in the county changes depending on the type of election, the number of contested races or incumbents on the ballots. This Election Day voters can cast ballots in federal, state and local elections, likely increasing the turnout.

About 31 percent of the voters registered in 2011 showed up at the polls on Election Day that year to cast ballots for U.S. senate and other races. However, about 33 percent of the 4,317 voters registered in District 4, or 1,338, went to the polls at Central High School on that Election Day, according to the registrar’s data. About 26 percent of the 4,271 voters in District 6, or 1,324, went to Strasburg High School that Election Day.

But far more voters head to the polls in a presidential election year, as will occur in 2016. In 2012, Shenandoah County saw a voter turnout of almost 71 percent for the presidential election. That day, approximately 61 percent of the registered voters in both Districts 4 and 6 went to the polls.

At last count, 4,319 people are registered to vote in District 4. Using the last presidential election as a base and a voter turnout estimate of 63 percent, McDonald said the polling location could see 2,720 voters. The site would see an average of 151 voters per hour from open to close, McDonald said. In the last presidential election, voter turnout at the poll remained steady during the day.

Given the voter traffic at the schools, McDonald said parking and traffic should be taken into consideration.

Polling places in the county’s other precincts don’t pose the same challenges as the two schools primarily because of the low voter turnout and their locations. Likewise, the churches, community buildings and fire and rescue stations aren’t holding other events on Election Day, McDonald noted.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com