It was “a perfect storm of events” that contributed to traffic difficulties on Election Day in Merrimack, but during a review at the Town Council meeting Thursday night, town officials agreed the election over all went very smoothly.
Merrimack Police Chief Mark Doyle, who addressed some of the traffic concerns that arose on Nov. 6, said in the morning the higher-than-expected turnout before the doors even opened halted traffic when parking spaces filled to the max. People getting in line to vote at 6 a.m., an hour before the polls opened meant those parking spaces were locked up for more than an hour, preventing those who arrived a little later, or in time for the polls to open, from being able to drive down O'Gara Drive and McElwain Street because of the queue of cars waiting to park.
“You can see how it was a perfect storm of events leading up to the very first opening f the new polling location,” Doyle said.
Lynn Christensen said in all of her years as moderator, she has seen nothing like that. When she arrived at the polls around 6 a.m., people were already lined up to get in. By the time the doors opened at 7 a.m. 500-600 people were in line waiting to vote. Christensen said there is always a small contingent of people waiting, two to four or so, sometimes more on a bigger election, saying she's arrive with 20 or so people there, but never 600.
“This was exceptionally unusual,” Christensen said.
In the first two hours, they put 3,000 voters through the polls, and while it may be among the busiest mornings they've ever had, the rest of the day was smooth and steady with registered voters and new registrations alike.
Throughout the day Merrimack had more than 13,000 people cast a ballot and more than 1,500 people registered at the polls. In addition, election officials had to verify another 1,500 absentee ballots, putting them at 14,877 votes cast in this election. A heavy turnout, for sure, Christensen said, but not a record, she said.
Traffic issues outside the school were caused in part by confusion with parking and the chaotic nature of cars coming and going from every which way. While Doyle said it isn't advisable to create a one-way traffic pattern, as it would create a separate set of problems with people trying to enter and exit the polling location, he does think they would benefit from using the police volunteers group to direct traffic and guide parking.
In the morning, the big problem was the lack of a flow of traffic in and out while people waited in line. In the evening traffic congestion was complicated by five accidents on the Everett Turnpike, all during the evening commute. That compounded to heavy traffic congestion the town sees on a nightly basis between Exit 11 and Rite Aid, Doyle said.
All things considered though, Merrimack drivers were careful and took their time and Merrimack Police had no accidents to deal with.
“I absolutely stand behind the decision to go to a single polling location from an operational standpoint,” Doyle said.
Christensen added, regarding the accidents, that she kept the polls open until she was “slapped on the wrist” by the attorney general's office who pointed out the state law that says “polls are to be closed on the designated time.”
She said she found the end of the line of people in the building and closed it off at that person, but checked the parking lot first to make sure no one was coming in. Before closing the polls.
Also in need of reworking, Christensen said, was signage for handicap accessibility.
“Handicapped signage is something we need to improve on pretty significantly,” Christensen said, noting that the signage was not prominent enough creating confusion and difficulty for some who were unaware there were easier ways to get into the school to vote.
Despite the confusion with handicapped parking and accessibility and the traffic snarls, Christensen said inside things went very smoothly.
“Diane (Trippett) and I and the three supervisors hate lines,” Christensen said. “We do the best we can to eliminate them.”
Christensen said if a line gets too long the checklist at that table is split in two, when the line to register to vote got too long, more tables were brought in, more resources were used to register people and they moved people through as fast as they could.
“I never thought of it like a line, it was like a parade,” Town Councilor Jackie Flood said.
Flood, who was working at the affidavit table, said they were very slow all day and wondered if there's been any challenges to those who filled out the affidavits. Christensen said there were no challenges to her knowledge.
“I think overall things went very well,” Town Council Chairman Tom Mahon said. “When you're trying to handle 14,877 … voters, it's always a challenge.”
Christensen said it's true that there were some complications outside the polls, but she reinforced that the decision was made to go to one location because of the deficiencies at the other two locations. The state's attorney general's office was on her case to fix them or move them for compliance issues.
People who thought the high school was hectic would have seen worse with the three locations, she said, like long lines that snaked out of the buildings, more parking issues and traffic tying up Daniel Webster Highway, Baboosic Lake Road and Route 101A.
People think back to the last election and how quickly they moved in and out, but the last election had 60 percent lower turnout. The last presidential election included traffic and line chaos, too.
“No pun intended, I think there's a lot of speed bumps we incurred on Election Day,” Town Councilor Bill Boyd said. But there were things that weren't anticipated, like the enormity of the number of people voting in the morning.
“I think the whole day was a learning experience as to how to manage the largest voting district in the United States.”
Christensen said they have some work to do before the next election at the high school, regarding traffic, parking and signage, but there are two years until the next election will be held there. The interim elections, with lower turnouts will be at James Mastricola Upper Elementary School. She said for the next presidential election, she'd recommend opening the polls at 6 a.m., as the morning is busier than the evening.
In the meantime, “We're still taking suggestions if people have them,” she said.