Polling places, pulpits, prayer and politics

A sin of mixing church and state or blessing of saving money?

By Leslie Jorgensen

COLORADO SPRINGS — Over the past 20 years, Colorado Springs has earned a reputation for mixing religion and politics — from candidates touting conservative Christian values to thousands of voters flocking to campaign forums at New Life Church. Also blurring the line separating church and state, critics say, is that 73 percent of El Paso County’s polling places are located in churches.

It’s an eye-popping percentage compared to church locations in other counties: 9 percent in Weld, 14 percent in Douglas, 15 percent in Pueblo, 16 percent in Arapahoe, 21 percent in Jefferson, 32 percent in Denver, 35 percent in Adams and 38 percent in Larimer. Several of these counties, however, utilize voting centers instead of precinct polling places.

Leaders of Colorado Common Cause and Campaign for a Strong Colorado, of Denver, and Citizens Project and NAACP, of Colorado Springs, criticized El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink for designating churches instead of neutral locations, such as schools and libraries, as polling places in a process that excluded public input.

Balink said there is no such tenet as separation of church and state — and it wasn’t factored into the decision to reduce 189 polling places to 102 in order to save $175,000 per election in election costs. Because of early voting and mail-in ballots, he said, only 15 percent of 78,267 votes were cast at polling locations on the day of the primary election.

Many polling places in public schools were eliminated because of safety concerns for children, economics and the day of the Aug. 10 primary caused scheduling conflicts as students returned from summer break. Falcon School District had been in session two weeks earlier and Fountain School District resumed on Aug. 12.

Another reason, he said, was that the locations might influence votes being cast on school district funding requests and elections of school district board members.

“They’re trying to make it an issue,” said Balink. “Nobody cares more — including these leftwing groups — about complying with state statutes than we do. You can quote me on that.”

It is legal to have polling places at church facilities.

“Our concern is that polling places are not intimidating to anyone,” said Kristy Milligan, executive director of Citizens Project, a nonprofit organization established in 1992 to promote pluralism, religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Milligan, Colorado Springs NAACP President Rosemary Harris Lytle, Denver-based Campaign for a Strong Colorado Executive Director Ellen Dumm and Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Jenny Flanagan issued a press release this week citing studies that indicate voters are influenced by voting locations.

Citing “Deus Ex Machina: The Influence of Polling Place on Voting Behavior” by Abraham M. Rutchick that was published in the April edition of Political Psychology, the release stated that “voting in churches has a measurable effect on how voters cast ballots compared to more neutral locations. The (research) concluded that to reduce this effect, church locations should be kept to a minimum, polling places should be in non-consecrated areas of the church and religious symbols should be removed.”

“We do not have an issue, in general, with churches serving as polling places, as long as the process in choosing them is public, all faiths are included in the choices and overtly religious symbols are not displayed in the polling places,” said Milligan.

Of the county’s 102 polling places, 74 are on church properties said Balink. At sites, such as Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Tejon Street, he said voting booths are set up in the “big community room — not by the alter.”

The polling sites, Milligan said, are primarily Christian religious institutions and a few Catholic churches. Left off the list, she noted, are other faith-based sites such as the Jewish Temple Beit Torah and the Wat Santidhamma Buddhist Temple & Meditation Center.

“The clerk’s office has a responsibility to ensure that the exclusionary polling places of our American past are not a part of our present. Polling places should be welcoming for voters — not intimidating,” said Lytle.

Members of the Citizens Project and Colorado Common Cause requested a meeting with Balink and his staff, but Balink said that he and El Paso County Elections Manager Liz Olson are too busy preparing for the General Election and working on potentially three district elections in the following months.

“We are short staffed and swamped,” wrote Balink in an e-mail to Flanagan.

Flanagan asked Balink and Olson to explain why there was a major change in the polling locations from 2008 to 2010, what factors were used to determine the current polling sites and what alternatives are available for voters who do not want to vote in a church or walk through a place of worship to get to a polling place in a meeting room.

“We make every effort when selecting a polling location to ensure the area used is a common, general gathering area while also keeping in mind the number of voters, election judges, voting equipment and supplies within that same area we must accommodate,” countered Olson.

“Additionally, we must ensure ADA (American Disabilities Act) accessibility in each of our 102 polling locations which we cannot and will not compromise on,” declared Olson. “Taking all of this into consideration, I feel our polling locations are suitable for voting purposes and each (is) within the statutory guidelines for selecting polling locations.”

Flanagan responded, “Our coalition will be moving forward in our plans to educate the community about these issues. We’ll be conducting outreach to our members and the media to ensure that voters are aware of their options for voting this year, the use of churches as polling places, and our suggestions for best practices.”

“We recognize that it’s too late to change polling places this year,” said Milligan. “Our goal is to set up a fair and transparent process for selection polling sites in the future.”