All Merrimack voters who cast a ballot in the September primary will officially point their vehicles in the direction of James Mastricola Upper Elementary School after the Merrimack School Board on Monday agreed to use the facility as a single polling location for the Sept. 11 state primary election. But the decision wasn't made without reservations.
The 4-1 vote, with board Vice Chairman Davis Powell in opposition, was made with concerns about the impact the election traffic could have on the school, which is scheduled to be in session that day, given that this will be the first single polling location in Merrimack in many years.
School board member Shannon Barnes said she was concerned about the number of voters that may come out to vote this year given that it is the first in eight years without a clear candidate for governor in either party.
She pointed out that there is the possibility, though she didn't expect it, that 19,000 voters could come out to cast a ballot. Even if a third of the voting population came out, that is 6,000 voters in and out of the building throughout the day. Her concerns lay in student safety and disruption to the school day with people coming and going through the all-purpose room area all day.
“I made the motion (to approve the Town Council's request) for sake of discussion but this is not what I'd want for our students,” Barnes said.
Barnes said she also had concerns about the topic being brought up so late in the game, with the election less than two months away.
to close the St. John Neumann voting precinct for good, moving to a single polling location of JMUES going forward. This was the second vote to close a polling site over safety and accessibility concerns. At least one more discussion will be held about polling locations early this fall when the Town Council and the School Board discuss the possibility of making the high school the town's singular voting location starting with the Nov. 6 general election.
Town and School Moderator Lynn Christensen said at the recent Town Council meeting that she expects a much higher volume of traffic for the General Election in November and the high school would be a better location with better parking. Last December, as part of an ongoing conversation in town about polling sites, the School Board voted to deny the moderator's request to go to the high school as a sole polling site. How it would affect the school calendar was at the top of the concerns.
A joint meeting between the School Board and Town Council is in the works for sometime in mid-September to discuss this possibility. Notice of a polling location change would be needed by Oct. 6 at the latest to satisfy a state 30-day notification regulation.
School Board member George Markwell questioned what the impact would be if the board voted in opposition of allowing the town to use JMUES as a single polling location and School Board Chairman Chris Ortega said he didn't know, but that wasn't up to the school district to decide.
“In the interest of the town, though I think the process that's been followed here is flawed, I think that we can find a way to accommodate, as we have in the past, the September election at James Mastricola Upper Elementary School and so I will vote for the motion,” Ortega said.
Board member Andy Schneider said he was on the same page with Ortega, knowing the position it would put the town in to deny the location, but he said he thought there were some high-risk variables at play that made him a little uneasy. Schneider said he looks forward to the joint discussion when it happens, to “finally put this issue to bed,” and hopes it will be the last such discussion on the topic.
Both Christensen and Town Council Chairman Tom Mahon were in attendance in the audience, available to answer any questions the School Board had, but they we're never brought into the conversation.
Following the vote, Christensen told Patch she understood the concerns about traffic and safety, but she doesn't expect the Primary to bring out a bigger than usual turnout. Christensen estimates 2,000 to 4,000 of the town's voter population visit the polls. Further, Christensen said even with three polling places, more than 4,000 voters have turned out to JMUES in the past and it wasn't a problem.
“The most we've ever had at a state primary is 4,000 voters,” Christensen said.
She added that despite the wide-open race for governor, this isn't the first time there has been a heavily contested race that would bring people out on from multiple party lines. She pointed to the race between Deborah Pignatelli and David Wheeler for executive council in the 2010 general election.
As for safety concerns, Christensen said they will conduct the security at the polling location the way they always have. A police officer will be stationed at each corridor leading out of the APR lobby making sure the only people who get through are authorized school personnel.
“I'm concerned about having strange people walking through the corridors, too,” Christensen said. “We've done that (having police in the building) for many years.”