Practical, logistic and public safety concerns in the wake of the Newton, Conn., school shooting have prompted Pettis County Clerk Nick La Strada to consolidate polling places ahead of the April 2 municipal election.
Beginning in April, Ward 2 voters who previously voted at Washington Elementary or Pettis County Courthouse will now vote at First Baptist Church, 200 E. Sixth St. Ward 3 voters who previously voted at Parkview Elementary will now cast their ballots at New Hope Baptist Church, 664 E. 16th St. Ward 4 voters who previously voted at Antioch Fellowship, Skyline Elementary or Horace Mann Elementary will now vote at the First United Methodist Church Celebration Center, 1701 W. 32nd St.
La Strada told the Democrat on Tuesday that the county will no longer stage elections at polling places located in Sedalia schools, a move supported by Brad Pollitt, Sedalia School District 200 assistant superintendent. The polling place consolidation plan will only affect voters in Sedalia Wards 2, 3 and 4; there is no change for Sedalia Ward 1.
“Brad contacted me after I was elected and raised some concerns, so we have actually been working on this for a while,” La Strada said. “After the shootings, we looked at the safety of our children along with some of the other issues like parking, and it just seemed like the right move to make.”
Pollitt cited election day issues such as traffic and limited parking at many of the schools, the large influx of potentially unknown people onto school grounds and concerns over student confidentiality as reasons for backing the move to get polling places off school property.
“As we have evaluated our safety procedures and plans, having voting booths in school buildings causes us an issue,” Pollitt told the Democrat Tuesday afternoon. “It was our feeling that there are other opportunities for polling places, like the churches, that would be willing to house voting and help us secure our schools.”
Overall, Pollitt, who will assume duties as superintendent at the end of this school year, said the move is regrettable but necessary.
“We were happy to host when we could. I wish times were such we could still do that, but in this day and time it is probably better to get polling stations out of our schools. I am sad things turned out the way they have turned, but we have to keep up with the times,” Pollitt said.
However, Sedalia 200 School Board member Scott Gardner expressed some regret at the move.
“I am concerned about it. I understand the security concerns. From a parental standpoint, I want our kids protected. I realize having a school open for voting purposes is a huge security risk. I just have a problem with doing this because the people who show up and work at polls or vote, those are the very people you want in a school building — the people who care enough to vote,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he believes it is important for students to be exposed to the voting process, but “this is a philosophical problem versus a real problem with security.”
“I will reluctantly side with security,” Gardner said.
La Strada also cited similar concerns regarding the Ward 2 move out of the courthouse.
“As it happens, election days are also court days so we have a lot of people coming through the first floor of the courthouse and it isn’t really secure for anyone. We just want to make sure everyone is safe,” La Strada said.
This is the second consolidation La Strada has overseen since coming to office. The first, a 2011 move that reduced the number of polling places from 25 to 23, was estimated to save the county between $2,000 and $3,000 per election. La Strada said this plan, which will reduce the number of Pettis County polling places to 18, will save the county between $7,000 and $8,000 per election.
“I know people don’t like change sometimes, but ultimately we have to look to the future and I know in the long run this is the right move,” La Strada said.
Voters in the affected areas should receive new voter registration cards in the mail from the clerk’s office, which will include the name and address of their correct polling place. La Strada said people should receive their cards by mid-March. Voters who do not receive a card or believe their voting information is incorrect may contact the clerk’s office at 826-5000, ext. 918.