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Long lines at Derry's lone polling place prompt AG's involvement

Some local leaders, for their part, are already looking at what they can do differently ahead of the next election.
Long lines at Derry's lone polling place prompt AG's involvement
Derry’s lone polling place at the Calvary Bible Church saw long lines during certain times on Tuesday. (Kate Brindley | New Hampshire Bulletin)

It was an election that ran smoothly throughout the state – even the weather was sunny and clear, the perfect day to vote. Not so for voters in Derry, who were held up for over an hour in a long line of vehicle traffic stretching out from the town’s lone polling place at Calvary Bible Church on Hampstead Road.

Derry’s polling site is among the busiest in the state, with 18,000 registered voters in town. That, coupled with high voter turnout, caused congestion and long wait times before work and during the after-work surge, prompting the attorney general’s involvement, according to Secretary of State Dave Scanlan.

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Scanlan said the state became involved because voters shouldn’t have to wait more than 20 minutes to vote, per New Hampshire statute. If the wait time exceeds that limit, the attorney general can try to ameliorate the situation through actions such as getting local police involved to help direct traffic or responding to unruly behavior in the polling place.

“We act as a resource, but we will also step in, especially if a voter calls and says, ‘I’m in this line of traffic. I want to vote, but I can’t. I just don’t have the time,’” Scanlan said. “Those are issues that we want to resolve quickly because we want voters to be able to exercise that right to vote and not be disenfranchised because the line was too long.”

But the state doesn’t dictate towns’ selection of polling places. They’re required to provide a location that’s accessible for people with disabilities, with heat, lighting, and ample space, but beyond that, decisions including the number of polling places is up to the local community.

“Ultimately, it’s the town that runs the polling place,” Scanlan said. He’s planning to meet with officials from Derry to discuss how they can better manage traffic.

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Some local leaders, for their part, are already looking at what they can do differently ahead of the next election.

“We need to do better planning as a group,” said Town Councilor Brian Chirichiello. “My personal opinion is that we’re too big to have one spot.”

It hasn’t always been that way. Derry used to have three polling locations, but the town council decided to downsize during the pandemic. At the outset, the move was meant to address safety concerns posed by COVID-19 and help the town secure enough volunteers at a time when older people were nervous about exposure to the virus. Having just one polling location simplified the process and allowed the town clerk and moderator to supervise all election activity under one roof.

Then in 2020 concerns over election integrity began swirling. One local leader said mistrust in elections was another reason the town opted to operate only one polling place, as a way of providing additional assurance to voters that Derry’s elections are secure.

“Even in the next town over, in Windham, there’s conspiracy theories,” said Joshua Bourdon, who chairs the Derry Town Council. “If you have multiple locations, conspiracy theorists are going to be upset because you gotta transport the ballots at the end of the night.”

“So there’s this demand of we have to keep our election safe and prevent fraud. That’s easier to do in one building,” Bourdon said.

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The environment of distrust has also made it difficult to recruit volunteers when people are sometimes hostile to poll workers, he said.

And while suspicions of widespread voter fraud are not backed by evidence, the long line on Tuesday was observable to all – and frustrating to voters who had to wait an unusually long time.

Chirichiello said he was the lone councilor to oppose the consolidation, concerned that many of his constituents – elderly people and young apartment dwellers – would have a hard time getting to the polling place across town.

He plans to propose increasing the number of polling places in town. Bourdon has another solution: move the polling place back to Pinkerton Academy.

“Everyone recognizes that waiting in line for an hour, two, or more is unacceptable,” Bourdon said. “We can do better. And we will do everything in our power to find the best location for the future and simultaneously to satisfy the concern that elections are done safely, appropriately, and that integrity is kept up.”

Both emphasized that once voters were inside, the process went smoothly.

This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com.