Danvers Single-Precinct Debate Provides Case Study of Poll Location Issues



[Image courtesy of goldstar]

As someone whose post graduate education (legal and non-legal) was heavily case-based, I’ve always loved the idea that dropping yourself into someone else’s story via a well-written case can help you both understand what happened there and draw lessons for what you might encounter in the future.

Today’s news provides just such a case in the guise of a Salem News story about a Danvers, MA debate over using the town high school gym as a single polling place for the town:

Despite concerns about traffic, a congested parking lot and some less-than-helpful police detail officers at the polls, the town plans to stick with one polling location at the high school on Cabot Road for the foreseeable future.

“I have never voted for the single (polling location),” said Dan Bennett, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night during a meeting at Town Hall, which again tackled the controversial issue of putting all eight precinct voting locations into one gymnasium at Danvers High.

However, Bennett’s four colleagues expressed their support for the status quo, with some reservations.

“It would be a 4-1 vote, and we are not going to vote, anyways,” Bennett said.

Danvers’ single polling location is a relatively recent phenomenon – and due to various circumstances hasn’t been in place consistently from election to election:

All eight precinct locations were consolidated in 2008 to the Vye Gym [at the high school] in an effort to save money and make it easier to administer an election. The consolidation also spares voters a trip across town in case they show up at the wrong polling location.

Selectmen halted the practice in 2010 after snowy roads, plowing problems, school being in session, and an unexpectedly heavy turnout caused traffic on Cabot Road during the [special U.S. Senate] election in January 2010. There were concerns some voters could not get to the polls.

That experience, and the impending high school renovation, dispersed polling locations to four locations around town for about three years.

Selectmen voted to returned to a single location at the Vye Gym starting in May 2014 with the completion of the Danvers High renovation.

Supporters of the consolidation say it has many benefits:

[Town Clerk Joseph] Collins, in his review, says he gets input from the school superintendent and the directors of Senior and Social Services and the Department of Public Works to tweak things each year.

He said voters have grown accustomed to voting at the high school, that a single polling location works in large communities like Reading, Burlington and Andover, and early voting in November 2016 should reduce the number of voters heading to the polls. 

Since the re-consolidation of the polls, the town has seen to two annual town elections, with low voter turnouts, a state primary, with 16.3 percent turnout, and a state election in which more than half the town’s eligible voters, 54.5 percent or 10,160 voters, streamed to the polls …

Selectman Bill Clark liked the social aspect of having the entire town vote in one location, something he observed firsthand as he held a sign for his reelection in May. 

But others say the single location creates traffic problems – much of it due to parking, with which some say local police aren’t helping:

However, shortly after last fall’s state election, former Selectman Keith Lucy wrote a letter to the board and spoke out, complaining about traffic and a lack of access. He said he knew of two voters who could not get to the polls because of traffic. He advocated selectmen move to four polling locations, as the town had maintained for about three years. 

Also at that time, Selectman Diane Langlais, who lives four houses down from the high school, noted that traffic backed up on Cabot Road in the morning and again during the evening rush.

“It’s no party, anyplace,” said Langlais of getting to other possible polling locations in town, including the Smith School on Lobao Drive, an across-town location she used when voting was in four locations …

Selectman and retired state Appeals Court Judge David Mills said he favors a single polling location, but many of his constituents are older, and they have complained about a lack of access and places to park. He was critical of some police officers he saw who failed to help with parking, calling their actions “very disrespectful.”

“My concern continues there be proper, respectful attention to voters,” Mills said …

Selectman Gardner Trask asked about not holding school or activities during major elections. He said someone has to act “as a concierge to parking,” for example, directing voters onto Massachusetts Avenue as an alternative route when parking backs up onto Cabot Road…

“I was incensed by the lack of cooperation by one of the police officers,” said Clark, who said one of the officers had his arms crossed instead of helping voters, something Clark said was a disgrace to the other officers. 

For its part, the town insists that parking is sufficient and says that they will work to communicate better with voters:

“With respect to the perception of inadequate parking and traffic congestion,” Collins wrote, “we continue to work closely with police to ensure that voters are engaged and directed to available (ample) parking.”

[Steve] Bartha, the town manager, said there are more than enough spaces at the high school to accommodate a large election, but there is a perception problem to overcome.

“We have the capacity,” Bartha told the meeting, “we just have to do a better job of connecting the dots.”

I love this story (kudos, by the way, to staff writer Ethan Forman) because it takes the big issues involved in choosing and managing polling locations and gives them a “you are there” feel.

Were I teaching this case, I’d ask the students to discuss the pros and cons of a single location (both in theory and in Danvers), but then take that single location as a given and work through all the different issues it presents – especially the need to identify and communicate parking and traffic flow information to voters and police. [There would, undoubtedly, also be a shout-out to and discussion of the PCEA recommendation of school in-service days on Election Day.]

Then, we’d look forward – first, to the fact that the high-turnout November 2016 presidential election will be the first at the school in eight years (remember the high school was under renovation in 2012?) as well as the potential impact of recent Massachusetts law changes (early voting and online voter registration) which could also have an impact on Election Day.

UPDATE: A colleague with experience in Massachusetts writes with the following:

One thing that locals would note is that police details in MA are a huge boondoggle that cause no end of headaches for citizens and the businesses that have to hire them for situations like this.  Mass. is now the only state in the country that requires traffic details to be staffed by active duty police officers working overtime.  This means that in Danvers, the city can’t employ civilians (or even city employees) to direct traffic and help voters navigate what is undoubtedly a congested situation. That, in turn, means that the town clerk has no direct control over what the police officers are doing to direct traffic.  If the clerk wants to change things, s/he has to deal with the police chief, who then deals with the officer in the department who makes detail assignments, who then deals with the officer(s) assigned to the detail.  It’s a real mess.

I’ve made it a habit of observing police officers at traffic details such as this one, and the SOP is to station yourself as far away as possible from where the trouble will be.

So, in addition to the good points you make, this is also a case in which the election official (and even the town “fathers”) can’t directly control access to the precinct.

In short, this story is almost a perfect microcosm of the issues that election officials face in choosing and managing polling locations – and finding stories like it is a big reason why I love scrolling through dozens of election-related stories every day.

Okay – that’s it for today … don’t forget that responses to next week’s readings are due Sunday night and you should be thinking about a paper topic before it gets too late in the semester.

Class dismissed 🙂





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