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Coronavirus prompts relocation of voter precincts from some Muskegon County schools

MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo logo MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo 10/7/2020 By Lynn Moore, mlive.com
a person standing in front of a building: Jean Rose votes as her children Gary, 3, and Killian, 16-months-old wait at Mona Shores Middle School in Norton Shores, Michigan on midterm election day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 © Joel Bissell/Joel Bissell | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS Jean Rose votes as her children Gary, 3, and Killian, 16-months-old wait at Mona Shores Middle School in Norton Shores, Michigan on midterm election day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018

MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI – Concerns about voters and the coronavirus have prompted the removal of voting precincts from several schools and the Election Day closure of two others to students and staff.

Muskegon Township has moved three precincts and Laketon Township has moved one in time for Nov. 3 in-person voting.

When Norton Shores officials didn’t act on a request to move two precincts, a decision was made to keep students and staff out of Mona Shores middle and high schools on Election Day.

Allowing voters into schools that normally are closed to visitors – and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – “seems counterintuitive,” said Mona Shores Public Schools Superintendent Bill O’Brien.

a sign on the side of a road: A 'vote here today' sign in the parking lot at Mona Shores Middle School, Mich., Tuesday, May 5, 2015. © Joel Bissell | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS A 'vote here today' sign in the parking lot at Mona Shores Middle School, Mich., Tuesday, May 5, 2015.

Voting precincts can only be in nonprofit buildings, and many are in schools, churches and government buildings.

Muskegon Township agreed to move three precincts, including its two largest, following a request from school superintendents, said township Clerk Ann D. Oakes.

The largest, Precinct 4, is moving from Orchard View High School to First Baptist Church at 1070 S. Quarterline Road, Oakes said. Precinct 6 is moving to the same church from the Orchard View Community Education Building, she said.

And the second-largest precinct in the township, Precinct 3, is moving from Reeths-Puffer Intermediate School to the building known as Unity United Methodist Church, 1600 N. Getty St., Oakes said. That building no longer holds religious services, she said.

The “last minute” changes were approved on Sept. 3, and notices to voters were sent on Monday, Oct. 5, Oakes said.

In Laketon Township, Precinct 3 is moving from Reeths-Puffer’s Central Elementary to Laketon Bethel Church, 1568 W. Giles Road, said township Clerk Christina Achterhoff. That church already is home to the township’s Precinct 1, Achterhoff said.

“The school did not want us to have it there, which was really disappointing to us,” she said. “They felt for security, and now with COVID, they didn’t want people coming. I understand.”

But Norton Shores was not able to accommodate a request from Mona Shores to move its precincts out of the middle and high schools, said city Clerk Shelly Stibitz.

“We really were too close to the deadline,” Stibitz said.

The decision to move precincts must be made 60 days before an election.

O’Brien said he first sent an email to Stibitz on July 16 asking for a timeline for moving a polling location. He said it took 30 days to get a response, and he made a formal request to move the precincts on Aug. 24.

A Norton Shores City Council member asked for an update at its Sept. 1 meeting after O’Brien had asked “again” that the polling places be moved, according to minutes of that meeting. Mayor Gary Nelund, city Administrator Mark Meyers and Stibitz “each shared reasons the request was denied including Michigan law restrictions for polling place changes,” the minutes state.

A further explanation was offered in a Sept. 3 memo to the council, in which Meyers indicated he had told the council at the Sept 1 meeting that the 60-day deadline "has lapsed.” That deadline actually was the day Meyers sent the memo.

O’Brien told MLive when the city didn’t move the precincts, the decision was made to close the middle and high schools to students and staff on Nov. 3, which will be an at-home learning day.

Schools normally are closed to outside visitors due to security concerns, O’Brien said. Now that there’s a global pandemic, no outsiders – including parents – are allowed in the schools, he said.

“We really had two main drivers for asking for that (precinct change),” he said. "One was safety of kids – just the number of people expecting to be voting this year in and out of our schools. Obviously, we want to put students' safety first.

“And with COVID-19, obviously we have a strict no-visitor policy this year for all of our schools as part of our mitigation policy.”

But O’Brien said “we understand” that the city didn’t have “a lot of options.”

Stibitz told MLive that voters are kept away from middle and high school students. At the high school, the voting is done at the performing arts center, while at the middle school, the polling location is at the back of a building in a secondary gym, she said.

The city will “clean and sanitize” voting areas following the election, Stibitz added.

Finding suitable alternatives for precincts has proven difficult, she said, explaining that the middle school is in a residential area.

Trinity Lutheran Church is within a few blocks of the middle school, and St. Francis deSales Church is 1/4 u00be mile away.

Two churches, St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church and Breakwater Church of the Nazarene, are located across the street from the high school.

“Probably as much as we get complaints about voters in the schools, we get complaints about voters in the churches and the separation of church and state,” Stibitz said.

Also on MLive:

Muskegon Heights police chief leaving for new job

Lawmakers now have more say in Michigan’s coronavirus response. Can they find common ground with Whitmer?

West Michigan school district begins in-house coronavirus testing

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