By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Selectman have decided to add a fifth polling place to avoid another Election Day nightmare that saw long lines of voters waiting in the dark and dangerous traffic backups.
The board agreed unanimously Monday to ask town moderator Christopher Goodnow to present a plan with an additional polling place within the next 90 days.
But some selectmen were reluctant to come up with the $25,000 Goodnow recommended be spent on the transition. That figure includes the cost of notifying voters, Goodnow said.
They voted, 3-2, against a proposal to have the Budget Committee appropriate the money. Selectmen Stephen Campbell and Patrick Hargreaves opposed the move.
The entire board agreed the town had to do something to prevent the problems that plagued the 2012 presidential election.
That’s when a crush of voters at the Ingram Senior Center led to a wait of more than an hour and a half. The wait at Mary Fisk School was more than hour.
Hundreds of voters were still lined up in the cold outside the senior center when the polls were scheduled to close at 7 p.m. The last votes were cast an hour later.
Many voters expressed their frustration as they stood in the dark, with temperatures dipping into the 30s. Traffic jams outside the center led to extra police officers being called in, and people dodging cars to avoid being struck as they went to vote.
“You had people crossing through the woods to vote,” Hargreaves recalled. “It was a fiasco.”
“It was a cascade of failures,” he said.
But some voters were especially upset that the town had just completed a redistricting, reducing the number of polling places from six to four.
Handicapped accessibility was limited at some polls and it was difficult to find enough workers to staff them, Goodnow said.
Many voters complained to town officials about the redistricting, forgetting or not realizing they had approved it at the polls eight months earlier, Selectman Michael Lyons said.
Although Goodnow and the redistricting subcommittee must draft their formal plan, the moderator has suggested eliminating Lancaster School and possibly adding Soule and Barron schools. The senior center, Fisk and North Salem School would be continue to be used as polling places.
Goodnow said the number of ballot clerks would be increased. Having a fifth polling place would avoid similar problems during future presidential elections — when voter turnout is much higher than usual, Goodnow said.
“We can process voters twice as fast and not have lines and parking issues,” he said.
Goodnow asked that selectmen give him a sense Monday night whether they wanted four polling locations or five so he could move forward with the plan.
While all agreed five sites were needed, selectmen couldn’t decide how to fund the move after Town Manager Keith Hickey said there wasn’t $25,000 in the current budget to pay for the transition.
Campbell said he couldn’t justify spending more of taxpayers’ money when selectmen already failed to meet their budget goals.
“We didn’t meet the target we set for ourselves,” he said. “We already failed. This will just make the failure greater.”
Selectmen also decided Monday to proceed with a plan to rezone the police station property on Veterans Memorial Parkway so it could someday be sold as commercial property.
The goal is to build a public safety complex on a larger site to accommodate both the police and fire departments — a project that would not be undertaken for many years, selectmen said.