By Zendelle Bouchard
At the City Council’s meeting on Nov. 21, 2023, there appeared to be general agreement among Council members that consolidating Sanford/Springvale’s three polling places to two would be a good idea, if those two could be Sanford High School and Sanford Middle School, and only if students were not in the buildings on voting day. There was only discussion on the subject; no votes were taken.
However, no change can be made before the March presidential primary, due to the deadline for a public hearing to be held. That election will go forward utilizing the current polling places, which are Sanford High School, Sanford Christian Academy (formerly St. Ignatius Gym) and Nasson Community Center.
At the Council’s previous meeting Nov. 7, they heard a proposal from City Clerk Sue Cote to consolidate all voting to one location at Veterans Memorial Gym (see that story). That idea was tabled to give Councilors time to get more information about the proposal. They individually submitted questions in writing to Cote, and a separate workshop was held to go through the questions and answers. Mayor Becky Brink and some of the other Councilors expressed concern that handicapped access to Memorial Gym is difficult and parking is insufficient, which might discourage some people from voting. Councilor Bob Stackpole argued that absentee voting and early voting at City Hall provide sufficient alternatives for people to cast their ballots.
During discussion on the topic at the Nov. 21 Council meeting, several Councilors said that SMS and SHS offer better access and parking than Memorial Gym. It was also pointed out that using locations which are under control of the City or School Department provides better opportunity for setup and takedown of the voting booths and other equipment. In past elections, City staff have had to work around the schedules of Nasson Community Center and SCA.
City Manager Steve Buck said there is movement at both the state and county level to close schools on election days, due to safety concerns with having the public in the building at the same time as classes are being held, particularly during a contentious election. But state legislative action takes time, he said, and would not be complete before the next presidential general election in November 2024. He was uncertain of the timeline for York County officials to make a decision.
Buck said Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson plans to approach the other school districts that send students to Sanford Regional Technical Center about closing on voting day. The school districts are allowed a maximum number of dissimilar days on their respective school calendars. But Buck said he would “rather be yelled at by the Department of Education” for a dissimilar day than have students’ safety in jeopardy. The school calendar is recommended by the Superintendent and must be approved by the School Committee.
Councilor Ayn Hanselmann suggested that the City look toward the June 2024 School Budget Validation vote as a goal for making the change, whether by County or local action. The deadline for a public hearing on that would be March 10, 2024. She said in the meantime, Councilors could take walking tours of the two schools, perhaps during Christmas break, to better understand the layout and setup for elections.
The Leadership team, which includes officials from both the City and School Department, will talk further about the proposal at its next meeting.