Salem officials look for solutions to polling problems
By APRIL GUILMET Union Leader Correspondent
SALEM - During last month's general election, Salem voters showed up at the polls in record numbers, with some waiting to vote for well over an hour at two of the town's four polling locations - Ingram Senior Center and Fisk Elementary School.
The election and the primary in September were the first for the town's modified polling plan, with town officials opening four polling places instead of six. In 2011, selectmen approved the elimination of Barron Elementary School and Town Hall as polling places, with those voters moved to the senior center during this year's September primary.
On Monday evening, Town Moderator Christopher Goodnow shared a recap of the recent election with selectmen, noting that the new plan may have worked out fine during the September primaries but left a lot to be desired in the November election.
"Presidential elections are always a struggle for us," Goodnow said. "It's kind of like putting 10 tons of weight in a three-pound sack."
Among the issues presented at Fisk School and the senior center last month was the lack of sufficient parking, long polling lines and the fact that the ballots were unable to be processed fast enough. Nearly 15,000 Salem voters turned out for the November elections. Of those, over 34 percent, or nearly 5,000 voters, showed up to cast their ballots at the Ingram Senior Center.
"One of the challenges with elections is we have this huge variance where we have to accommodate 15,000 people," Goodnow said. "We're under much scrutiny and I try my best to make the process consistent election to election, but that's been a challenge."
Goodnow said the process of planning regular elections versus presidential elections "is like designing church for Easter Sunday."
"In September, we put in the exact same processes for the primary and it was smooth as silk. I don't think you can say the same about Nov. 6," he added.
The new voter identification law further slowed the process. "It took much longer to take in voters than we'd anticipated," said Goodnow. "At the end of the day, it just didn't work."
After the November election, Goodnow reached out to town clerks in communities of similar size to Salem, including Hudson, Londonderry and Derry. He concluded that there's currently "a wide disparity on how communities approach the process."
"We have a number of logistical constraints as some of our facilities have better parking than others," Goodnow said. "Fisk School becomes congested pretty fast. I don't have a formal plan yet on how to address this. Logically, our four existing polling places work fine for non-presidential elections, but four doesn't seem to cut it for the presidential elections."
Should another redistricting plan be considered, those plans would need to be finalized sometime in January, in time for the March town elections.
Goodnow further noted that Salem is the only community he knows of in New Hampshire that doesn't pay its ballot clerks, something he feels needs to change next time around. Patrick Hargreaves, chairman of the board of selectmen, noted that the senior center had only three sign-in tables during the recent election. He felt having four tables would have helped speed up the process.
"Right now, we have people going through the entire alphabet to get to your name," he said.
Selectman Everett McBride said he was personally against adding a fifth polling location, but he felt another redistricting was necessary. At Lancaster School, he noted, way fewer voters passed through the polls. Meanwhile, some noted that having the Salem polls close at 7 p.m. is confusing for some voters, since many surrounding towns' polls remain open until 8 p.m.
Goodnow advised against keeping the Salem polls open later. "We've been open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for decades now, and before that happened, we really didn't see that many voters after 7 p.m.," he said.