Public schools are great voting locations because they’re everywhere and they’re public property. But officials at two Southern Nevada campuses caused problems during last week’s primary election — and broke the law — by treating their schools as private property.
It’s perfectly legal for candidates and their supporters to campaign at polling locations, as long as they’re at least 100 feet from the entrance to the voting area. Election workers are trained to understand this law so they don’t unlawfully chase off people engaged in protected political expression. Clark County School District police are well aware of the law as well.
Nevada political activist and consultant Chuck Muth was called Tuesday to assist Amy Groves, a Republican candidate for Assembly District 29, because she had been ordered off Green Valley High School’s campus by a school administrator who asserted she was on “private property.” Ms. Groves had consulted with site election officials to verify she was campaigning outside the 100-foot radius and was told she was in compliance with the law. After some telephone conversations between various parties confirmed she was engaged in legal campaign activity, Ms. Groves was allowed back on the campus.
When she returned with a folding table and a shade umbrella, however, she was ordered off public property again, because the school administrator objected to the gear being set up on campus. Again, Mr. Muth intervened. As long as candidates and campaign supporters are not blocking sidewalks or voter access to the polls, they can set up portable furniture for their use and comfort. Finally, the administrator relented and allowed Ms. Groves to return, but not before compromising her ability to make direct contact with voters.
Later Tuesday, at Del Webb Middle School, a janitor claiming to be following the directions of the principal ordered Carl Bunce, a Republican candidate for state Senate District 20, off campus because the school was — wait for it — private property. Mr. Muth was called to help Mr. Bunce correct the problem, and the janitor backed down once it was clear that he was the one breaking the law.
A Clark County spokesman confirmed that election staff at both schools were made aware of the disputes and offered clarification. Unfortunately, school staff didn’t get the memo about the 100-foot standard. More precisely, the memo they received didn’t mention the 100-foot standard. On May 8, the school district sent a memo to school administrators and head custodians that outlined preparations and procedures for the primary election. The memo did not state that campaign activity outside the 100-foot radius is legal, protected speech.
In response to Tuesday’s problems, the school district released a statement: “The district works closely with the Clark County Elections Department to ensure all polling sites are maintained to the county’s standards. We put out instructions on how to prepare for elections to our site administrators before each Election Day. We also advise our administrators to contact the Election Department if any questions arise on Election Day.”
Clearly, before November’s election, the school district’s instructions must be revised to include laws on permissible campaign activity at polling sites. And it wouldn’t hurt to remind school staff that schools are public property.