Linden BOE devises alternatives after primary vote rebuff

Photo Courtesy of Linden Public Schools
VOTE HERE — Voting machines are rolled into McManus Middle School in Linden for the 2016 general election. McManus is one of nine schools in the city that are designated as official polling places, despite the school board’s objections.

LINDEN, NJ — The local Board of Education, which was recently denied a request to have June primary voting removed from its schools, has been notified that the Ward 5 polling station will be reassigned to one of the city’s schools.

BOE President Raymond Topoleski announced at the board’s meeting Thursday, Sept. 20, that the polling stations previously located in the Ann F. Ferguson Towers will be moving to School No. 4 in the spring.

School Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10; Myles J. McManus Middle School and Linden High School are used for voting, according to the Linden City Clerk’s Office. In addition, Firehouse No. 3, the John T. Gregorio Recreation Center, PAL Building, St. Theresa’s Church complex and the 7th Ward and 8th Ward recreation centers are also used for voting.

When asked about the addition of another school to host June primary voting, Topoleski said, “We’re not happy about it,” adding that the move will make voting less convenient for many people in the city of about 42,000.

“That’s my neighborhood,” Topoleski said. “My kids went to School 4. So, I’m in that area. It’s going to be a hardship for the people who live in those Towers because now, instead of just going down the stairs or walking through the building, the access for them is the backside of the building. So now they have to go across the street and have to go all the way through to the back because that’s where the polling is, in the gym. So, it’s going to be a hardship for them.”
The BOE began its push to have primary polling removed from the city’s schools in June out of concern for the safety and welfare of its 6,100 or so students, faculty and staff.

Board members said they’d heard from several parents who complained they had to adhere to stricter school security measures adopted by the board in April. The parents were members of the Educational Support Team, an ad-hoc committee that meets each month and informally presents feedback to board members. When the parents showed up for their June meeting, they had to produce identification although voters were allowed to enter the school without vetting.
According to Superintendent of Schools Danny Robertozzi, the school district will go to “Plan B.” Schools are allotted four snow days each year; the first unused snow day or “giveback day” will be used to close schools for the primary June 4, 2019. If all four snow days are used, “Plan C” will go into effect, which will take away the vacation day scheduled for the Monday after Easter to close schools instead for the June primary.

Robertozzi said if those plans fall through, the BOE will declare June 4, 2019 a half day, and will look into having a police presence inside the schools that day.
Topoleski was authorized by the BOE at its Aug. 28 meeting to draft a letter requesting the primary polling removal from the Union County Board of Elections and the Union County Clerk’s Office.

In his reply, UCBE Chairman John DeSimone cited state statute 19:8-2 which states that “Preference in location shall be given to schools and public buildings … if same can be done without detrimental interruption of school or the usual public services thereof. …. In no case shall the authorities in charge of a public school or other public building deny the request of the county board for the use, as a polling place, of any building they own or lease.”

According to a copy of the letter obtained by LocalSource, DeSimone said that “the board has historically made use of Linden schools as polling places without an interruption in the functioning of the schools” and that he would encourage the school board “to consider hosting a professional development in-service day for staff on primary election days.”

Robertozzi stated at the Aug. 28 meeting that in-service days are strategically planned for the beginning of the year, so the training teachers receive help them and the students for the rest of the year, unlike if the days are utilized in June, he said.

The UCBE’s decision to turn down the school board’s request to remove polling from schools was welcomed by Mayor Derek Armstead, who had obtained a copy of Robertozzi’s June letter that was to be sent to the UCBE. Before it could be sent, Armstead issued a statement, calling the BOE’s plan to remove primary polling from schools an attempt at “voter suppression” and characterizing concern for student safety as a “smokescreen.”

“There hasn’t been any violence or any problems with the elections and I’ve been doing this for 28 years,” Armstead said in a telephone interview Friday, Sept. 21. “I can’t recall any incidents on election day in regards to the children. I have three children who are in the school system, so I am as concerned about safety in our public schools as anybody else — even more concerned because I have my own children attending the public school system.

“But I will say this: If safety is an issue, then we will do everything humanly possible to see to it that we can have more police presence on election day, if necessary. We are in discussions with the Board of Education to hire special police officers who will be in the schools to deal with other issues regarding school safety. Perhaps on those days we could deploy those officers to various polling sites. We could also look at perhaps having additional police officers on election day at the polling sites as well.”

According to Nicole DiRado, an administrator for UCBE, under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, there are few instances in which a voter can be asked for identification. Voter-registration forms ask applicants to submit the last four digits of their Social Security numbers or driver’s license numbers. Once that information is confirmed, voters are approved and don’t need to present identification at a polling station.

“If a voter registers and does not provide either of those two items on the registration form, they will have to show a document to the poll worker when they go to vote before they can sign the poll book,” DiRado said. “If a challenger challenges a voter’s residency, then the poll worker can ask, and should ask, the voter for proof of residency. So, there are very, very limited circumstances in which a voter should be asked for ID. But not to enter the polling place.”

The UCBE may not have heard the last of Topoleski, who said he plans to obtain a map of the city’s voting wards to identify voting alternatives to city schools. He said he hopes to follow Westfield’s lead. Dana Sullivan, business administrator for Westfield Public Schools, said her district has worked with UCBE representatives to remove primary polling from eight of its 10 schools.

BOE member Theresa Villani said at the board’s Sept. 20 meeting that the board should continue to work to keep students and staff out of harm’s way.
“There have been shootings at polling places in this country,” she said. “I mean, the last couple of years. There was one in the suburb of Los Angeles, killed right outside a polling place. There was another one in Atlanta. So, the shootings are happening in the polling places. To say that it’s not a concern or shouldn’t be a concern, that we’re making it up? No, it’s already happened in this country.”