As Primary Arrives, Town Goes Back to One Polling Site
School Board, Town Council spent more than an hour discussing the merits of moving single polling location to the high school at a joint meeting Thursday.
When Merrimack residents hit the polls today, one thing will be significantly different from the last eight years: voters will congregate in one location, rather than two or three.
Earlier this year, town and school moderator Lynn Christensen recommended closing the polling locations first at St. James United Methodist Church and then at St. John Neumann, too. Christensen recommended at the time of closing St. John Neumann, that the Town Council discuss the possibility of moving the now single-polling location at James Mastricola Upper Elementary School to Merrimack High School, a request the school board previously turned down in December.
Now, Town Council and School Board members continue to go around and around on the issue of possibly creating a single-polling location at the high school.
While the Council agrees with the moderator that the high school appears to be the best option, the School Board last year voiced heavy opposition to that idea because it would require the high school, and by extension, the school district, to be closed during each election, which would affect schedule teacher and staff development days.
During a joint meeting of the Town Council and School Board on Thursday, Sept. 6, Christensen said JMUES is a suitable location, but there are several reasons that make the high school better, not the least of which being the size, accessibility and available parking during a well-attended election.
While no decisions were ultimately made at the meeting, as it was informational in nature-only, positions were made for and against creating the polling site at the high school. A vote from the school board will come at an undetermined date.
Town Councilor Tom Koenig observed that the issue appears to have developed into a town versus school problem and he said he thinks that attitude needs to change.
“We're looking to try to resolve an issue here for a community event that involves school as much as it involves the town,” Koenig said.
He said when the town moderator recommended splitting the polling location eight years ago, he was not in favor of it, but went along with it because Christensen thought it was the best bet for the town. Now, Koenig said the town is coming to the school district “with our hat in our hand” because the high school is really the only big enough space left in town to conduct the election.
The continued concern from the school board is how closing school will affect the school calendar. In the past, when the board has attempted to make changes to the calendar, it has been a very hot issue and people have come out in force to keep vacations and school start dates the way they are, board members have said.
But Christensen gave a couple options for getting around that. The date the school board seems to be most stuck on is the presidential primary that occurs every four years, because the date of the election is not set in stone when they are working on the following year's calendar. Christensen has said before and said it again at that meeting, that the presidential primary is generally a small-enough turnout that it would not be an issue to take that election to JMUES. The election could run during school hours as it does now and it wouldn't be a huge notification problem since the school is in the same vicinity as the high school.
She also mentioned the possibility of building a floating holiday into the calendar as some other districts do, but as Vice Chairman of the School Board Davis Powell pointed out, a floating holiday would probably be a difficult option for a school district of this size.
School Board member Shannon Barnes said as of right now, she doesn't see any new information that the school district wasn't able to consider when it elected last December to deny a request to make the high school a single poll location, and for that she would have a hard time supporting it.
Barnes said neither location is “ideal” because there's a level of disruption at JMUES on election days that is unavoidable, but she thinks closing school on election day would be more disruptive to the education of Merrimack's students, especially in November with it falling right before Veteran's Day, which would mean two four day weeks back to back.
George Markwell, who with Barnes voted in the minority in December 2011 in favor of having the high school as a single polling location, said he thinks the school board should reconsider its vote from 2011 to make this work, as the high school appears to truly be the best place to handle the town's whole checklist.
He pointed out that there have been elections in the past that have had a line of people waiting to vote out the door at 7 p.m. and with everyone at one location, a hot-button issue could make JMUES a difficult place to vote.
“I want to echo something Tom said. I think it's important for the school board to recognize these are not the school board's building, they are the town's buildings,” Markwell said. As a town we need to provide people a place to vote ... the high school in my opinion is the best lace in this town as a single polling place.”
Christensen said while having a single-polling site at JMUES works, and can continue to work at least in until the voter checklist grows significantly, Merrimack High School in her opinion would be the best option for a single polling location. JMUES can handle the election traffic on most elections, she said. But when there is a big voter turnout, it will be busy, traffic may be tight, lines longer, but the town's election officials will make it work.
Saying no to a single-polling site at the high school will not automatically return the town to mulitple polling spots, she said. At least until another vote is taken, the polls will only be open at JMUES. Christensen said she is not trying to make the decision for the school or the town and the decision isn't easy.
“I'm just giving you information, and the decision is yours, whatever the town council, whatever the school board decides to do, I will make do,” Christensen said. We will have an election, the people will be allowed to vote despite all the points about voter ID, the people will be allowed to vote and it will happen. We've always tried to make it as easy as we can for people.”