Moderator: We need a plan

TIM JEAN/File photoBallot clerks wore protective gloves as they passed out ballots during town elections back in March. Officials are preparing for what will be a unique election season, both for September's primary election Sept. 8 and for the General Election Nov. 3, with more protections and safety measures likely to be part of the election process for both voters and those working at the polls.

DERRY — The New Hampshire state primary in September and November's General Election may look a bit different, town officials say, and now is the time to get details and changes in place to make sure the community votes safely and with the most information possible.

Town Moderator Tina Guilford presented information to Town Council at a meeting June 2, saying the elections coming up in the fall could require some major changes in the way voting is done, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now is the time to organize and make plans to create safe, secure polling locations for the town's voters.

Right now, the town traditionally uses three polling locations for its four districts — Calvary Bible Church, West Running Brook Middle School, and Gilbert H. Hood Middle School — catering to the community's 22,000-plus registered voters.

Guilford, elected as Town Moderator this past March, said especially in November, voter turnout could top 18,000 ballots cast, but September's primary could be much less as per traditional numbers in the past. That could lead to a possible use of only one polling location at Calvary Bible Church, especially since the Derry Cooperative School District's calendar said school is in session Sept. 8, primary election day.

The moderator noted having school in session on that September election day, and with so many unknowns about if and how schools would reopen, a situation could arise where the two middle school gyms and libraries may be unavailable for election staff and voting spaces if schools needed that added space for safely distanced classrooms.

More information will be released from the state Attorney General's office with guidelines to follow for election processes and safety, Guilford said.

Town officials will join with other stakeholders, including school officials, police and fire representatives to create a new committee to specifically study the election process for the fall.

Getting information out to residents about election day processes should also be done sooner rather than later, councilors said. And consistency between September and November elections is key.

"One polling place could be a problem," said Councilor Brian Chirichiello. "And to start making changes at the last minute, it's a concern."

Councilor Joshua Bourdon said keeping as many polling places as possible is best, to keep better social distancing and space issues in mind when people come to vote.

The town could also encourage voters to come wearing masks for added safety, or at least make them available, officials said.

Councilor Jim Morgan said the idea of a lone polling location shouldn't "scare us."

"What should scare us is an ineffective system of protection," Morgan said, adding election workers, volunteers and voters should all have access to proper protection when coming to the polls.

Morgan said there are many ideas to float around about how things can be done. He hopes Derry can be a leader in putting plans in place to make elections run successfully and safely.

Guilford also encouraged voters to take advantage of absentee ballot voting.

The new committee will begin to meet to study election logistics, safety, and what measures will be put in place for protection, whether it's plexiglass partitions between ballot workers and voters, outside registration, or other ways to make sure all guidelines are followed.

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