By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — There may never be a casino at Rockingham Park, but there will be a large crowd there during the next election.
Instead of placing bets, voters will be gambling on who they want to elect to office. District 1 residents will be casting ballots at the former racetrack in March.
Selectmen unanimously approved town moderator Christopher Goodnow’s request Monday to use Rockingham Park as a polling place in March because of major renovations taking place at Fisk School.
“We don’t have a home for our Fisk polling place and voters who vote there,” Goodnow said.
Fisk is one of three elementary schools that will undergo a $16.2 million renovation over the next year. Yesterday, contractors and an excavator were busy at work at the school. The school’s main entrance has been moved to the building’s rear while construction is underway.
Rockingham Park is one of only a few locations in the district that could accommodate several thousand voters on Election Day, Goodnow said. The other is the Icecenter on Lowell Road, he said.
“There were two excellent alternatives and I’m definitely appreciative of both for offering their facilities for free,” Goodnow said yesterday.
After learning Fisk School would be under construction for a year, Goodnow said he knew he would have to find a new polling place, but the search would be difficult.
Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan offered the use of his facility, but Goodnow said he was hesitant to accept if Salem voters would be asked in March if they wanted a casino in town.
Earlier this year, 80 percent of those who voted in the March election said they supported a casino in Salem.
Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas has proposed a multimillion-dollar casino at Rockingham Park, but state lawmakers rejected expanded gambling. New casino legislation has been proposed for the next session, which begins in January.
“I just couldn’t entertain the risk there would be in a binding vote for gaming in this community in which one of the polling places was at the facility where that gaming would occur,” Goodnow said.
He said state Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, assured him Salem residents wouldn’t be voting on the casino issue in March.
Callahan said yesterday he was glad to offer the use of Rockingham Park, which would only be used for the March election.
“We generally do what we can to help out the community,” he said.
Goodnow also told selectmen he wanted to establish a committee to consider a redistricting plan after long lines developed at some polling places during the presidential election last year.
Some voters became angry and frustrated after waiting in line for nearly an hour at Fisk School and the Ingram Senior Center.
It won’t be the first time voters are asked to consider redistricting.
In 2010, Goodnow proposed consolidating the number of polling places because, he said, the town didn’t need six polling places. Handicapped accessibility was limited and it was difficult to find enough poll workers to staff them.
The reduction was approved in 2011. Barron School, Soule School and Town Hall were eliminated and the Ingram Senior Center was added, reducing the number of polling places to four.
Now, Goodnow recommends increasing the number of polling places to five.
The redistricting committee, which would include Town Clerk Susan Wall and voting checklist supervisors, will consider the various options, he said.
“I think we have to do something in March 2014 to get it on the ballot,” Goodnow said.
Goodnow recommended the redistricting occur in March, but some selectmen were concerned it would cause problems after Rockingham Park was added as a location. They recommended it take effect later.
“I can just see a lot of confusion with two changes,” Selectman Stephen Campbell said.
Chairman Everett McBride Jr. agreed.
“I think it would be a mistake,” he said.