Whether you love or hate the town's decision to go to a single polling site for all voters in Merrimack, here's an interesting fact that puts New Hampshire on the map once again when it comes to elections: Merrimack has the distinction of being the largest single polling location not only in the state, but in the country.
This isn't the first time this title has gone to a New Hampshire community, said Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who was visiting Merrimack High School around 3:30 p.m. Derry held that recognition as of the 2004 election. But since 2008, Derry has increased from one to three polling places, Gardner said, while Merrimack has dropped from three locations to one.
Gardner said in 2004, a national publication, National Administration Reports, quoted an official in the Bronx claiming to have the largest polling location with 12,000 voters. Gardner said he got on the phone with the editor and told him in New Hampshire, there was a location with more than that, Derry.
“In 2008, the New York Times came up to New Hampshire because they wanted to see how a place that large worked,” Gardner said.
Outside of the cities in New Hampshire, Derry has the most registered voters, Gardner said, then Salem, Merrimack, Londonderry and Bedford. With the recent combination of polling places in Merrimack, the town's 18,000 registered voters now put Merrimack into the position of most registered voters going to one location.
Not quite the notoriety of Hart's Location and Dixville Notch casting the first ballots in the country at midnight, but it's yet another reason New Hampshire is an interesting place for politics.
It's been a hot topic in town as many people were happy having separate polling locations closer to their homes with shorter lines, but the Town Council voted at its June 25 meeting 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 after they voted following the presidential primary to close the St. James United Methodist Church location over safety and accessibility concerns.
On Sept. 17, the School Board approved a request to hold the elections at the high school only for the busier November elections held every two years. The lesser-attended town election in April and the presidential primary will be held in a single-polling location at James Mastricola Upper Elementary School, as was done during the September primary this year.
Throughout the day there has been mixed reaction about the single polling location. From those who arrived here first thing in the morning, the lines were very long, parking was difficult, at best, to find and Town Clerk Diane Trippett said it took at least an hour to clear the line that formed when the doors opened at 7 a.m.
Gardner said, from what he'd seen, Merrimack was running very smoothly.
“It's running pretty well,” Gardner said. “All of our polling places in New Hampshire are very busy today.”
One resident, new to town, commented on our Election Guide, that she turned around and left after sitting in heavy traffic and being given no direction on where to park when the school's lots filled.
“I just moved to Merrimack, took a day off from work to register,” Sandra Dahlfred said. “I've never missed voting in a national election since 1972 but had to leave the poll this morning due to lack of access. There was NO place to park and no one was managing the traffic flow. Being unfamiliar with the town I didn't know where I could legitimately park and walk to the school. I would have been willing to walk and stand out in the cold but I didn't have the option. A town that doesn't care enough about its citizens to provide adequate facilities for exercising such an important right is one I'll have to think twice about remaining in.”
Holly Scopa Cirillo ran abreast of similar issues when she arrived to vote around 8:45 a.m.
“I tried to vote this morning around 8:45 but the line was entirely too long and I needed to get to work, Cirillo said. “With a town as large as Merrimack, we need additional polling places - ESPECIALLY for an election such as this, which is very heated and very close so LOTS of people are getting out there to vote. I agree with Tracie - It's terrible that those who tried to vote and left may not get another chance to go back today. I am going to try again in the next hour or so, but some people don't have that luxury (with work schedules, etc.) I know many people will agree that it was not a smart decision to consolidate and eliminate the other locations. Live and learn, I guess.”
"I wish Merrimack didn't decide to have a single polling location. I wonder how many people left early this morning when they realized how long they would have to park, walk and stand in line to vote?" asked Tracie Tentaris Smith. "I'm also wondering how they think they are going to get the other half of registered voters in before polls close at 7 p.m.? Granted we may not have 100 percent voter turnout, but there are still a lot of people getting out of work and going to one location...some who tried this morning too and couldn't wait. But hey...we are on the books for having the largest single polling place in the state and in the country. Does this even matter? I agree that we should have multiple polling places for every type of voting. Merrimack hasn't exactly shrunk."
But others have said in both Merrimack Patch's comment sections on the site and on Facebook that things went well despite the lines and given the traffic, which has been extremely busy in spurts and steady all day long.
“I thought they did a great job,” said Gary Krupp. “I was able to park vote and leave within 10 minutes this morning. Only people I know that really had to wait were part if the big group of people that arrived before the polls opened.”
“Kudos to all those directing traffic (both pedestrians & cars), lines moved well and while it was a bit slow moving around the parking lot - it was easier than any shopping plaza will be for the next 8 weeks... and this is WAY more important!” said Deb Wolfe.
As the evening rolls in, the line for voters registering to vote here continues to be long and steady and election officials are bracing for an evening rush, Trippett said this afternoon.
Trippett said despite the heavy traffic here, there have been serious concerns and issues in the past in terms of traffic backups on Baboosic Lake Road, Route 3 and Route 101. With voting at the high school, there is a large place for traffic to queue away from the main roads, on O'Gara Drive and McElwain Street.
“We worked really hard on trying to think of everything to make this run as smooth as possible for the voters," Trippett said.