EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 7, 2012

Salem officials to reconsider redistricting

Long lines had some voters fuming

By Doug Ireland direland@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — SALEM — Long lines of disgruntled voters at the polls Tuesday have prompted town officials to consider redistricting for the second time in two years.

The proposal comes only two months after Salem began using four polling places instead of six.

But waits of more than an hour on Election Day at Mary Fisk School and the Ingram Senior Center led to the potential change.

Town moderator Christopher Goodnow said yesterday he will be consulting with selectmen to come up with a solution.

"I think there are a variety of things we are going to have to look at," Goodnow said. "There are no super easy fixes."

Selectmen's Chairman Patrick Hargreaves said the board would consider redistricting at its meeting Dec. 10.

"We will look at what happened and how it happened," Hargreaves said.

Goodnow and Hargreaves said some voters complained about the long wait and questioned the recent change in polling places.

Goodnow proposed the change in 2010 because of logistical constraints at some polling places, including Town Hall, which was too cramped and had limited handicapped accessibility.

"We couldn't comply with many of the New Hampshire municipal requirements," Goodnow said.

The move was endorsed by selectmen and approved by voters at Town Meeting in March 2011,

The overcrowding problem was obvious last winter when controversial ballot issues such as adoption of curbside trash pickup led to congestion and long lines outside Town Hall.

Difficulty in finding enough poll workers also made it more feasible to reduce the number of locations, Goodnow said.

Starting with the state primary Sept. 11, residents who traditionally cast ballots at Town Hall and Barron School began voting at the senior center. Residents who voted at Soule School — the town's least-used polling place — began casting ballots at Mary Fisk School.

Hargreaves said although selectmen will have to consider the options, it's unlikely the town would return to six polling places.

"We might have to go with five, though," he said.

He said one problem is that while 7,200 residents vote at the senior center, only 2,900 go to Lancaster School.

The need to consider redistricting became evident hours before the onslaught of voters who hit the polls about 5 p.m. Tuesday

As a line of more than 100 voters packed a hallway at Mary Fisk School as early as 3:30 p.m., Goodnow said redistricting would have to be considered.

Voters were clearly frustrated.

"This is just crazy," said Lisa Moore, 48. "This is Salem, though."

Election officials said there was a steady flow of voters all day, beginning with those waiting to vote as early as 5:30 a.m. But the numbers didn't really pick up until early evening, when people stopped off to vote on their way home from work.

That led to the crush of voters at the senior center, where the wait was still an hour and half as of 6:30 p.m. — half an hour before the polls were closed.

Voters, trying to keep warm, voiced their frustration while waiting in line as the temperature outside dipped into the 30s. Extra police officers were called in to maintain control and direct traffic. There were no incidents or arrests, Goodnow said.

Shane Blair, 52, was afraid he wouldn't get a chance to vote.

"If they close the polls before I get up there to vote, there will be a lawsuit,” he said.

Goodnow had considered seeking state approval for extending polling Tuesday, but stuck with the original plan. Residents were allowed to vote if they had been in line or walking up to the polls at 7 p.m.

Voter turnout soared to 76 percent in Salem, with 14,597 of 19,286 registered voters casting ballots. That included 1,430 people who registered to vote that same day, Goodnow said.

There were no major problems or long waits reported at North Salem and Lancaster schools.