In mid-April Flagler County Republican Executive Committee member Bob Updegrave and two other people appeared before the Flagler County School Board to contest a policy that forbade campaign workers from soliciting voters on school campuses on election days.
“This voter engagement element of our political system here in Flagler, other parts of Florida and the nation is an essential political day activity and is a long-standing tradition as close to a right as may be had. We understand all the statutory rules of voter engagement at polling place and do strictly abide by them,” Updegrave said. He had no issue with the 100-foot no-go zone in law at the time, but he didn’t want to see anything like a government-designed “solicitation zone” for campaign workers beyond that.
“For instance a roped-off restricted poll worker area beyond the 100-foot arc is simply not acceptable,” Updegrave said. (He was misusing the term, confusing poll workers, who actually work the election process, with campaign volunteers and campaign workers, who solicit votes.) “Voter engagement is essential. If it continues to prevent the discharge of the duties of outside poll workers, this honorable board would be denying voters the one last look at balloted candidates for office and would be denying a last look at partisan and non-partisan ballot slates in various ballot initiatives.”
The school board would soon not have a choice but to address Updegrave’s concerns. Just days later, the Florida Senate passed a bill revamping the state’s election rules. Among those was a directive that all polling places would have to abide by the same rules, allowing solicitation no matter where they were located, including on school campuses. But the law also changed the no-go zone, expanding it from 100 feet to 150 feet.
The 150 feet are still not nearly enough to prevent soliciting on school campuses. That’s creating a dilemma for the Flagler school board, which earlier this month heard from Flagler County Elections Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart. She gave board members three options: close schools on all election days, create solicitation zones, or create a background-check system for any campaign worker who solicits on campus.
The discussion is focused on the 2020 election cycle. The presidential primary election is during spring break, on March 17, 2020 (on St. Patrick’s Day). So it’s not an issue for students. But the primary is August 18. The first day of school is Aug. 10. Some school board members are reluctant to close school again so soon after resumption of classes. November 3, the general election, is not a school day: teachers report for a planning day, students do not. That’s been the tradition in the county.
Board members are somewhat split between those who were favoring solicitation zones on election days (exactly the sort of zones Updegrave was urging against, and which could easily face legal challenge) and those favoring closing schools for students.
Some 34 percent of county voters are assigned to a school precinct or a district-owned property–six schools, with 19,000 voters, and three district properties with 10,000 voters, totaling a third of voters. That doesn’t mean these voters actually vote on district properties. In the 2018 general election, 70 percent of ballots were cast either at three early-voting locations, none of them on school property, or cast by mail.
“We need to accommodate the law, but a solicitation zone will at least keep our students and our buildings safe,” Boatrd member Trevor Tucker said, “because you don’t want people wandering about campus that you don;t know who they are or what they’re doing. I think a background check might be getting a little too hard because, are we going to have someone regulating out there going, hey, I want to see your background check.’”
Board member Maria Barbosa also favors a solicitation zone. But she said the zone would have to be fairly located. “That would not be fair also to the candidates if you put them in the back of the school” if the entry to the polling station is in the front, Barbosa said. She also cautioned against allowing solicitors to use school bathrooms.
Andy Dance and Colleen Conklin were more on the side of closing schools for students even for the August primary, treating the day as a professional development day. “So it’s just straight-forward, there’s no confusion, everybody knows: close the schools, it’s the easiest thing to do,” Conklin said. “At the end of the day, safety is going to trump what the adults would want.”
Lenhart is not interested in changing precincts, let alone closing school-based precincts, which are popular, easy to find and stable. Changing precincts confusing to voters, and there’s “not a whole lot of alternate locations for that,” she says. Consolidating precincts is also a problem. “We’re looking at lines and long wait lines,” which then affects turn-out, Lenhart said, as voters get discouraged.
“I respectfully request that board members vote to approve a solution and direct staff to submit our use of facilities agreement for district-owned precincts to be used in the 2020 election cycle,” Lenhart asked the board. She was promised two things: that the board will not keep its schools from being used as polling places, and that it will have a recommendation on how it would handle the 2020 primary–meaning whether schools will be open or closed, and whether solicitation zones will be used regardless–by next September or October.