Civil and Human Rights

Gun violence changes polling places

By Mike McGraw


Like millions of other Americans, I exercised my right to vote today, but it took three tries – thanks partly to my own ignorance and partly to the fact that our pervasive fear of gun violence in this country has finally invaded the voting booth.


My early morning trek began at a small elementary school just a few blocks from my home in the Clay County portion of Kansas City, Missouri. No election signs; no activity.


I drove on to another church four blocks further away, where election signs were popping up like mushrooms. I parked, walked inside and handed the cheery volunteer poll worker my driver’s license. Not on the list, she said. Sorry.


My last stop was a megachurch at a busy intersection another four blocks away. I parked and walked up a steep hill along with an older man struggling to make it to the top as he teetered on his cane. I was finally able to cast my ballot: number 138 of the morning, according to the machine that swallowed it as I left.


My patriotic odyssey would have been less frustrating had I received the voter identification card the Clay County Election Commission said it sent me in May, telling me precisely where to cast my ballot. If it came at all — and it might have — it probably got recycled.


But what about my old polling place, the small elementary school just a half mile from my house?


Dave Reinhart, Republican director of the Clay County Election Commission, patiently heard my complaints later in the morning and finally uttered two words I had not one time considered, but should have.


“Sandy Hook.”


In the wake of 26 shooting deaths — mostly children — at the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school in December 2012, people became concerned, he said. They feared for their children in schools that served as polling places.


Some schools don’t want to serve as polling places and, even if they agreed, the security hoops that post–Sandy Hook voters would have to jump through to gain access wouldn’t be worth the trouble, he said. “We couldn’t ask hundreds of voters to check in with the office before casting their ballots.”


Of the more than 70 Clay County polling places open today, more than 55 were churches. Just one was a school, even though most schools, including the small elementary school in my neighborhood, are still closed for the summer.


Many voters have complained, Reinhart said. Neighborhood schools make sense. They are scattered throughout the community. They are convenient. And access is often easier, especially for older voters.


But those schools, and the children inside them, have also become prime targets for a well-armed electorate.


According to the Constitutional Accountability Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, the right to vote is the single right that appears most often in the Constitution. Five times in all, in four Amendments, the 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th. And it is protected by powerful language like this: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . .”


The right to bear arms, on the other hand, appears only in the Second Amendment.


Reinhart predicted a light turnout in today’s primary election: 22,000 people, perhaps, out of 150,000 eligible Clay County voters.

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