Voter Turnout Puts Pressure on Single Polling Location

Londonderry voters threw their weight behind Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders in the first-in-the-nation primary last week.

The Town registered nearly 1,000 new voters in one of the largest elections in its history.

“We had a great turnout, one of our highest,” Town Clerk Sherry Farrell said in an email.

And with about 59 percent of Londonderry’s 17,357 registered voters having cast ballots, congestion at the Town’s sole polling location was at times overwhelming for both voters and volunteers.

Despite adjusting their strategy for managing the flow of traffic throughout the day to accommodate the large waves of voters, Police Chief Bill Hart said when they debrief following the primary, they will need to “look hard at the traffic issues.”

Glenn Douglas, who voted after 5 p.m., said he was frustrated the traffic plan voters were instructed to adhere to wasn’t followed when congestion got heavy at the polls.

“I waited 35 minutes to get around to the gym and they were letting people in from the main road at the intersection,” he said. “They should’ve enforced the traffic plan.”

When asked if he thought the gridlock on Mammoth Road during waves of high traffic into Londonderry High School’s gymnasium may have discouraged some residents from getting to the voting booth, Douglas said he saw seven cars waiting behind him pull out and turn around.

“It could have been that they were giving up, or they knew that they were letting people in from the traffic light,” he said.

“This plan was a test run. We know we need to make a change,” Town Council Chairman John Farrell said. “We will debrief with Fire, Police and ALERT (A Londonderry Emergency Response Team) to learn from this to adjust the traffic patterns and flow.”

The addition of a second polling location has been discussed in the past to relieve pressure on the high school gym.

According to the Town Charter, the Town Council may vote to establish an additional polling location.

In the meantime, Farrell said the Town needs to find another way to effectively move traffic through the polls before the November election, which has the potential to bring an even higher number of voters to the polls.

According to Farrell, the Feb. 9 election ran more smoothly than the general elections in 2012 and 2014.

“This was about 50 percent better, but we need to make another 50 percent improvement by November,” he said.

ALERT members assisted police with directing traffic in the parking lot, some braving the chilly temperatures from 6 a.m. until the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Bill “Remi” Fortin said ALERT members did the best they could to accommodate elderly and handicapped voters; however, some complained that voters with limited mobility had trouble walking from the back of the parking lot to the gym.

Voter Marty Henry said in a letter to the Londonderry Times that Henry’s handicapped license plate was disregarded and Henry was waved to the back of the parking lot, near the Cable Access Center.

“As we started to walk to the voting area, we had to go through a snow bank, not a shoveled path. Using my cane, and holding on to a fellow town resident, we went through the snow bank. Then, we had to walk the entire distance of the parking lot to vote,” Henry wrote. “I was not alone in this endeavor. There were many people at this time with canes, with visible physical disabilities, trying to maneuver their way to the building for voting, everyone holding on to each other, all of us facetiously commenting on this as being a really ‘nice’ way to treat handicapped residents.”

Fortin said he and other members of ALERT worked to create additional parking spaces for voters with handicapped plates and stickers, checking vehicles to ensure those persons with limited accessibility were guaranteed a spot near the gym’s entrance.

“We tried to look into the car and see if there were older people so we could get them closer spots. It was hard because everyone, especially young people, wanted to park right on top of the door,” he said, adding that when the sun went down, ALERT members positioned themselves on either side of cars entering the parking area to check for handicapped plates and cards.

Fortin noted traffic was directed away from the first two rows of parking, including spaces that were not designated handicapped, to ensure there was enough room for handicapped and elderly voters to get their vehicles in and out of the spaces.

“I think our team did a fantastic job,” he said. “A lot of us were out there the whole time.”

Other towns had differing experiences with heavy poll traffic. Merrimack Town Moderator Lynn Christenson said voters had to at times throughout the day wait in traffic to get to the polls due to high turnout for the primary, but that parking wasn’t an issue.

“Once people got to the school they were fine,” she said, noting there was a separate section of handicapped parking with its own entrance.

With only one polling location, Merrimack officials are considering adding a polling location to reduce congestion, according to Christenson.

“We have had three. As we got bigger and bigger, there were too many people on the Checklist at the additional polling sites so they couldn’t handle it. They decided to drop down to one (polling location) and get a bigger site at the high school,” she said.

Bedford Police Capt. Dan Douidi said they had minimal problems with traffic and no issues with parking during voting at Bedford High School.

“We moved about 9,000 cars through in a 10-hour period,” he said. “One thing that was helpful this year is we had two entrances to the polls at the school, where in the past we had one entrance.”

Additionally, Bedford Police designated additional handicapped parking spaces, advertised their traffic plan on the Town’s website and used billboard signs to direct motorists.

Salem and Windham also reported traffic moved smoothly through their polling locations.

“We had no parking issues. Our poll workers and teachers parked off-site,” Salem Town Clerk Susan Wall said.

“The only issue we had was the voter registration line got longer than we’d like, so we re-deployed people to take extras to people waiting in line,” Supervisor of the Checklist Eileen Mashimo said. “When Ivanka Trump came we had a traffic jam.”

But aside from the congestion resulting from Trump’s visit to the polling location, Mashimo said she didn’t hear of any traffic or parking issues.

At Derry’s three polling places, Derry Police Capt. Vern Thomas said the biggest traffic issues were at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School. “The candidates came through, and they attracted attention,” Thomas said.

In addition to the gawkers was the challenge of holding school at the same time as a major election. The Hood Ski Club was planning a short trip, which added to the regular end-of-the-day congestion, he said. “There were buses, and parents picking up their children,” Thomas said.

He said Derry police discussed the situation with Hood personnel, and the school deployed staff members to help with traffic control. “They dealt with parents and kids while we dealt with the rest of it,” Thomas said.

Despite the traffic issues, those who made it into the polls said they enjoyed participating in the excitement of the Primary Election and that they were pleased to see such a great turnout.

First-time voter Jillian Joubert, a senior at Londonderry High School, said all the volunteers who helped her through her first experience at the polls were “very nice.”

Joubert, who plans to study environmental science in college next year, spent much time before the election researching the candidates and watching the debates to make up her mind.

“I was going back and forth between two candidates,” she said.

For Joubert, her decision came down to selecting a Democratic candidate whose positions on higher education and equality most closely aligned with her own.

The top vote-getters in Londonderry’s Primary races were Republican Donald Trump, with 2,297 votes, about 61 percent of the vote, and Democrat Bernie Sanders, with 2,120 votes, about 53 percent of the vote.

Following behind Trump in the Republican Primary were John R. Kasich, 864 votes; Marco Rubio, 706 votes; Ted Cruz, 680 votes; Jeb Bush, 610 votes; Chris Christie, 601 votes; Carly Fiorina, 285 votes; and Ben Carson, 123 votes.

Finishing behind Sanders in the Democratic Primary was Hillary Clinton with 1,633 votes.

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