Ballots, Late Nights, and Lots of Pencils: Behind the Scenes on Election Day in Derry

Nov 5, 2018

The midterm elections might seem like a national event. But in reality, the election process is a decidedly local affair. That’s especially true in New Hampshire, where voting is run at the town level.

NHPR’s Casey McDermott takes us behind the scenes of one of the state’s busiest polling places to see how it all happens.

As a seasoned state lawmaker, Pat Dowling used to think she had a good understanding of the electoral process. But then, a few years ago, she volunteered to be a local voter checklist supervisor in Derry – where that list of voters is more than 23,000 names long.

“It was totally eye-opening,” Dowling said of her transition from politician to pollworker, during one of many recent nights she’s spent logging voter registrations at the town’s municipal center. “This is the nitty gritty; this is where democracy really starts.”

All across the state, small armies of pollworkers just like Dowling have been gearing up for what could be a recordbreaking turnout in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

They're the people who walk new voters through the registration process, who double check that those registrations are valid, who keep track of checklists and ballots and posters and paper clips and pencils — lots of pencils — and a long list of other supplies they’ll need at the polls.

And in New Hampshire, unlike other states with less homegrown election traditions, these pollworkers are also all locals. They signed up to work long hours on late nights and weekends, for little or no pay at all, to make sure you’re able to exercise your right to vote.

“I believe in the process 100 percent, and I just feel I am helping to facilitate that process,” Dowling said. “There are a lot of people that were here before me, and there will be a lot of people here after me. I’m just a cog in the whole chain of events.”   

In Derry, which has a larger population than most New Hampshire’s cities, successfully executing that chain of events on Election Day requires careful planning. In 2016, more people voted in this town than in all of Coos County; in 2014, the last midterms, it reported the largest turnout of any single voting district in the state.

But while cities are broken up into smaller wards, each with their own set of election administrators, Derry and similarly populous towns are governed by laws that apply to communities a fraction of their size.

With so many people passing through the polls in any given election, Derry’s pollworkers have learned to always be ready for the unexpected.

Denise Neale, who’s worked on Derry elections for almost two decades, said she learned this firsthand during one particularly chaotic presidential primary.

She couldn’t recall the year, but she’ll never forget the scene: There was a car accident on Interstate 93 (a main artery in and out of town), another accident downtown, and only one way in and out of West Running Brook School (one of the town’s main polling places).

“In the meantime, two presidential candidate buses pulled in,” Neale recalled, with a sigh. “It was a mess. The police were here. The attorney general’s office was here. Everybody was directing traffic. People were trying to get in, and people were trying to get out. There were long registration lines. You can’t plan for something like that.”

In the end, Derry kept the polls open late that year to make sure everyone who showed up was able to cast a ballot, because, Neale says, “It’s all about the convenience of the voter.”

But even after the polls close, a pollworker’s job is still far from over. Judy Strakalaitis, chair of Derry’s  supervisors of the checklist, says her Election Days usually last until 2 or 3 in the morning. One of her responsibilities is to make sure the town’s voter checklist is up-to-date, and that means logging all of the new voter registrations or changes to existing registrations that people make at the polls on Election Day.  

“For the presidential election in 2012, I was here until 5:45 in the morning — and I only left because I thought I was done,” Strakailitis said. “It turns out, there was one whole section of the alphabet I had missed and had to do the next day when I came in.”

While any community can recruit extra volunteers to help out at the polls on Election Day, much of the administrative work that has to happen before and after an election – like logging all of those voter registrations – can only be done by designated supervisors of the checklist. And Derry, with its 23,000 voters, gets the same legally allotted number of supervisors as Dunbarton, for example, with its 2,000 voters.

Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR

  “There’s just the three of us, and we all have other jobs and other commitments,” Strakailitis explained. “A lot of the laws are written for small towns – like, we have 48 hours to report numbers. Well, it takes us sometimes more than that.”

While she said the job has always been demanding, lately it seems like it’s only getting more difficult – in large part due to the changes to election laws in recent years.

“A lot of the people who have done it for years don’t want to do it because it’s become unnecessarily complicated,” she said.

Even Strakalaitis was close to calling it quits the day that one of those new mandates, Senate Bill 3, passed the Legislature. The new voter registration law concerned her from a clerical standpoint, as it seemed to add more work for pollworkers without achieving its stated goal of weeding out potential voter fraud. But it also concerned her from a philosophical standpoint.

“It’s just designed to make it as difficult as possible for people to vote, and I’ve always wanted to make it more possible – easier for people to vote, for qualified people,” Strakailitis said. “The reason I didn’t quit is that I realized, why would I want to leave it to someone who wants to suppress voting, somebody else to take my place who doesn’t have the same interest?”

So in spite of the long hours, the legislative headaches, and the looming reality that many people seem to be losing faith in the election process these days, people like Strakailitis and Neale and Dowling keep coming back – year after year – because they know they have an important job to do. You might even say they see it as a gift.

“Tuesday the election day to me is going to be almost like Christmas Day,” said Dowling. “You know how you don’t know what you’re getting for Christmas, but those packages look pretty good? I think Election Day is going to be like that: We don’t know what we’re going to get, but it’s just so good that people are out there voting.”