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Janesville City Council resists changing polling locations

By Elliot Hughes
August 10, 2015

JANESVILLE—The Janesville City Council resisted a proposal to move the polling locations for almost 13,000 voters Monday, instructing city staff to re-evaluate the proposed reassignments.

Under the proposal, three Janesville elementary schools and Rotary Botanical Gardens would be eliminated as polling locations. The new polling places for 11 city wards would be Craig High School, Franklin Middle School and New Life Assembly of God.

The proposal came about mostly because the school district has safety concerns regarding building access for the three elementary schools. Moving the 11 wards around would affect about 12,700 voters, according to city estimates.

Council members were uncomfortable with the proposal for several reasons. They said the changes would cause confusion among voters; make voting more difficult; ignite concerns over separation of church and state and cost the city a small—but avoidable—sum of money.

Two council members—Sam Liebert and President Douglas Marklein—both said they value school safety but believe the school district's concerns over safety were an overreaction.

“Nationally, there's kind of a trend to start moving away from schools as polling locations for safety concerns, but I think in this instance it might be an overreaction,” Liebert said. “If someone wants to get into a school, they're going to get into a school.”

This past spring, the school district informed the city it had safety concerns at Madison, Harrison and Kennedy elementary schools during polling. Kevin Leavy, a district spokesman, said it was because voters could potentially access the rest of the building, compromising safety.

The district proposed moving some of those wards into Craig High School and Franklin Middle School—facilities with specific entrances that restrict access to the rest of the building.

Rotary Botanical Gardens also asked to be removed as a polling place because it hurt revenue, Janesville Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek said.

The proposed reassignments are:

—Moving wards 27 and 28 from Harrison Elementary School to Craig High School.

—Moving wards 23-26 from Kennedy Elementary School to New Life Assembly of God.

—Moving wards 5 and 6 from Madison Elementary School to Franklin Middle School.

—Moving wards 11, 12 and 29 from Rotary Botanical Gardens to Craig High School.

The three new sites for the 11 wards would provide more parking, Godek said, which would make the voting process easier.

The voting at New Life Assembly of God would take place in a gymnasium where no religious artifacts are present, Godek said, and anyone who wishes not to vote on church property would be accommodated, as the city has done in the past with other churches who host polls.

But Liebert said that “blurred” the separation between church and state.

“I wish we had more input on this,” he said.

Chris Wesling, the district's student services coordinator, said after the meeting that continued talks with the city over polling locations would not be an issue. The city will not be part of another election until February.

Wesling could not say what possible alternatives exist.

“There's nothing wrong with taking some time and making a good decision,” she said.

The city typically makes most of its adjustments in polling locations in the years immediately after a new U.S. census, Godek said. It would cost up to $7,000 to notify all affected voters of the changes.

Godek said there is no legal requirement to notify voters of polling changes, but it would be appropriate to do so. Still, Marklein and Liebert were not convinced that a mailed notice would adequately inform those who have voted in the current locations for years. Marklein also didn't like the price tag.

“It's small potatoes, but it's still $7,000 of taxpayers' money,” Marklein said.

The district and all other organizations that host polls do not charge the city for use of their spaces, Godek said.