May 2 to 8 is the 52nd Municipal Town and City Clerks Week, a yearly chance to recognize more than 230 community clerks, usually with about as much fanfare and attention the office enjoys during the rest of the year — which is to say, not very much.
But Londonderry Town Clerk Sherry Farrell didn’t want this year’s Clerks Week to fly under the radar, especially after all the hard work of the past year executing local, state and national elections and overcoming extraordinary circumstances to keep local governments functioning.
“I often think of the clerk’s office as the heart of the community,” Farrell said.
Farrell, president of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association, was able to get proclamations recognizing the accomplishments of the clerk’s office from Gov. Chris Sununu and the Londonderry Town Council, where her husband, John Farrell, serves as chairman.
The clerk’s office is a “professional link” between residents and local government, and serves as a “vital information center” for residents, according to the Town Council’s proclamation. For many residents, especially seniors, Farrell said her office has been a lifeline during the pandemic.
But Farrell said elected and appointed clerks and assistant clerks across the state are unsung heroes, doing the daily work of car and pet registrations, answering questions, providing resources and ultimately funneling revenues into town coffers, even while much of the economy slowed to a standstill last spring and government offices closed their doors to the public for the first time in perhaps a century.
Her first step toward recognizing her fellow office holders was reaching out to several clerks in the state, listening to their concerns and trying to ensure the association was a resource to them. Without reaching out, clerks can often feel isolated.
“You are kind of on an island by yourself,” Farrell said.
Now, she’s trying to get the word out so the larger public knows what it is clerks do.
“It’s a multifaceted job. There’s a lot of different responsibilities that come along with it,” said Plymouth Town Clerk Josie Ewing.
At 27, Ewing is among the youngest clerks in the state, serving in her first term, which began last year.
Ewing said a clerk’s duty is similar to a customer service job in many ways. But the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to fill that role in the ways clerks are used to.
“It’s been a very difficult year,” Ewing said.
In Plymouth, they closed their doors to the public last spring and began offering curbside and dropbox services. And occasionally, they would meet safely with individuals on a case-by-case basis.
Farrell said clerks were “essential workers” who had no choice but to work in the office because government computers were linked to the Division of Motor Vehicles database for car registrations and because they had to handle all the mail that was coming in.
Early on, amid the uncertainty of a plague scientists still knew very little about, Farrell remembers spraying down a pile of envelopes with sanitizer.
While some offices like Londonderry’s reopened quickly last year, with added precautions like plexiglass barriers and mask requirements, other offices remained closed for about 12 months.
Wolfeboro Town Clerk Pat Waterman said her town reopened its offices in March.
Waterman, 80, is one of the state’s longest-serving clerks. She has been in office since 1984.
“I’ve just always enjoyed my position. And I don’t know if I’ll ever retire,” Waterman said.
Over the years, things have gotten easier for clerks, especially since she remembers a time before computers. And while this past year threw her several curve balls, Waterman took them largely in stride.
“I actually had five elections,” said Waterman.
Many communities had to organize polling stations for the presidential primary in February, a town election in March, a state primary in September and a General Election in November. For local government, voting in so-called SB2 towns like Wolfeboro was broken up between deliberative sessions and town elections.
“My elections have always gone very smoothly and accurately,” Waterman said. “We, in March, have our local election and we just had to have a recount on one of the runs for police commission. And it was really very heartening to find out that our election workers, our machines, everything came out perfectly.”
Farrell said a normal election day starts at 5:30 a.m. for municipal clerks and moderators. At the 2016 election, they ended up getting home around 3:30 a.m. the next morning. During the 2020 election, a technical malfunction with one of the Londonderry counting machines required her, Moderator Jonathan Kipp, volunteers from LHS Associates (the voting machine vendor) and other town staff to work through the night recounting ballots, Farrell said.
For Farrell and other clerks, their role in registering voters and managing elections is a “sacred” responsibility. But confidence in the elections among some in the public has waned significantly, at times putting clerks in the crosshairs of critics.
Shortly after the general election, Farrell said the Londonderry offices and a number of other communities were harassed by self-described government accountability groups like Press NH Now. She said people would appear unannounced with cameras and berate her and other town employees.
“I think a lot of people weren’t necessarily trusting of the election, and I really do believe that election officials in the state worked extremely hard to show that there is integrity to what we do,” Ewing said.
Now, as Congress debates legislation that would reform election laws across the country, New Hampshire clerks are fearful of logistical challenges and new requirements that could make their job more difficult and potentially muddy an already transparent process.
Ewing likes some parts of the bill, such as covering the expense of absentee ballot postage, and the principal of making early voting easier, but she thinks a lot of the proposed solutions are designed for states with bigger problems, rather than states like New Hampshire, which she said has an election system that already works really well.
“They’re not looking at states that are working, they’re looking at states that aren’t,” she said.
If it passes, it may mean permanent changes to the role of the clerk, according to Ewing. But whatever happens she said she is deeply proud of the trust the voters put in her to do the job.
Eventually, she would like to get her master’s in public administration and become a town administrator.