Reader questions polling places
Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 12:16 a.m.
Richard DesChenes is a self-described believer.
Who wants to know?
- * Name: Richard DesChenes
- * Age: 62
- * Occupation:Retired; currently a substitute teacher
- * Residence: Archer
But looking at the legal proclamation calling for city elections on Jan. 29, he wondered why so many Alachua County residents would have to go to church to vote - something he said he never saw when he lived in San Antonio, Texas.
"Polling places were at government-owned facilities, or at several of the large malls," DesChenes wrote to Since You Asked. "Why is it that Gainesville does not use publicly owned facilities as polling places? I do not like to see the churches get directly involved in any part of the elections process."
Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter said there are lots of polling places at publicly owned facilities throughout Alachua County, from town halls and recreation centers in small communities to buildings on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. She said her office makes every effort to find a publicly owned polling place in each precinct.
But Carpenter said it can be tough to find publicly owned buildings that are large enough to handle crowds, handicap accessible and equipped with lots of parking spots that are not being used all day on a Tuesday. Of Alachua County's 70 polling places, 13 are privately owned buildings, 19 are publicly owned and 38 are churches or other places of worship, Carpenter said.
"What we find is that most of the large buildings with plenty of handicap-accessible parking that are available on work days turn out to be churches," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said churches are also typically amenable to loaning their fellowship halls for use as polling places because they see it as an act of community service.
Carpenter said those who prefer not to vote in a church can request an absentee ballot or vote at one of three early-voting sites in the county.
Kenneth D. Wald, a distinguished professor of political science at UF, said churches are commonly used as polling places in places beyond Alachua County for the reasons Carpenter outlined. He said using a church as a polling place doesn't violate the separation of church and state.
"I suppose you can argue at some level that there's a symbolic message that if you have a polling place at a Catholic church, you might associate the church with the pro-life position, and therefore, that there's something about the environment that is overtly political," said Wald, who teaches religion and politics at UF.
"Honestly, I think that's kind of far-fetched. Unless they insist on papering the room with pro-life literature in violation of state law, and provided there's some effort made not to communicate religious messages, there's nothing inherently wrong with it."
Carpenter said that's part of why polling places located at churches use the church's fellowship halls or auditoriums rather than the actual sanctuaries.
"We do work diligently to try to have voting take place in as many of public buildings as possible, but that's just not available in every precinct," Carpenter said. "We're always open to suggestions from the public as far as polling places are concerned. If they know of a publicly owned building we are not aware of, we ask that they call us and let us know."
Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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