Durham has held its fair share of presidential elections, but they’ve never looked like they do this year.
September 8th, 2020 marked the first election held in Durham during a pandemic in a century. Non-absentee voters headed to Oyster River High School with masks and hand sanitizer, ready to cast their ballots in the New Hampshire State Primary. According to the Town of Durham, residents and officials are working together to make voting as safe and accessible as possible. Because of that, as well as 62% of voters requesting and mailing in their ballots ahead of time, they reported the Primary ran smoothly. However, the General Election is still on the horizon, and the community is looking to the previous election to determine how to ensure its success. Regardless, there are still questions around the upcoming election, even with the experience of the Primary behind us.
The COVID-19 outbreak first struck Durham in late March. At the time, it was unclear as to how long the effects of the pandemic would last, let alone whether or not it would affect the election.
“My first impression was I figured it’d be gone in a month,” said Ann Shump, Supervisor of the Voter Checklist and Durham resident. “I wasn’t willing to admit it would [affect the elections] until the end of May.”
Once it became apparent the pandemic wasn’t slowing down in the lead up to the elections, with New Hampshire averaging 30 cases per day in August according to the New York Times, officials in Durham started planning for the election. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, New Hampshire is one of about 19 states to offer options beyond in-person voting. In New Hampshire, only those who are out of town on election day or have a physical disability can receive their ballot ahead of time by mail. That process is known as absentee voting. However, in recent months, the state made it possible for voters to request an absentee ballot due to fear of COVID-19.
New Hampshire towns had the choice to advertise the newly available vote-by-mail option. Durham took it one step further. Durham’s Town Administrator, Todd Selig, said “We actually encouraged people to vote absentee…That was sort of a gutsy move. In many places, it would be criticized, but it was worth it.” After sending out messages that endorsed and explained the absentee voting process, Selig observed that Durham’s decision allowed the actual day of the election to run smoothly because it reduced in-person voter turnout. He found the positive reception to absentee voting promising for the General.
With that said, voting absentee is not the only difference this year. Durham elections are a result of the collaborative efforts of the Town Clerks, who handle the absentee voting, the Supervisors of the Checklist, who oversee voter registration, and the Election Moderator, who is in charge of election day. According to Shump, they typically work closely, but their involvement was even closer this year. “More than ever before, the moderator, the clerks, and I actually talked to each other about how things were going to be set up. In the past, we’ve always done our own things and everything has fallen in place, but this year not only did we talk, but we also had a number of training sessions… There was a lot of coordination this year, even compared to a presidential election.”
The collective efforts paid off, with residents who chose to vote in person agreeing they were satisfied with election day. AnnaKate Munsey, a UNH student, reported that she was pleased with the precautions the town took to maintain COVID-19 safe guidelines. “From the time you walked in, there was someone sitting there with hand sanitizer and masks,” she said. “Durham had a good grasp on what it needed to do to make the election safe.”
Durham Town Council Member, Sally Tobias, had a similar experience. She, like many residents, used her experience at the Primary to gauge her confidence in the upcoming General election.
“Having the Primary has given us all an idea for what we’re going to need to rise to the occasion. There’s a higher volume and more at stake. In a way, I’m glad we had the Primary before,” said Tobias.
Selig also reported coming away with cautious optimism, saying, “I feel better than I did three months ago. We were able to get through this election, and we’ve worked through some logistical problems, so I think that’s really promising. At the same time, it’s a big undertaking, and I worry about big undertakings. I want them to go smoothly for everybody.”
Selig’s concern primarily surrounds the question of whether or not UNH students will still be on campus in November. He stated that UNH students make up a large percentage of the voting body in Durham, especially those who register to vote the same day as the election. Shump, Munsey, and Tobias also referenced the impact UNH will have on the outcome of the General. According to Shump, Durham has roughly 3,000 same-day voter registrations during the presidential election. With COVID-19 protocol, processing that volume of new voters in addition to Durham residents could prove difficult. The way the polls are set up depends on the number of voters, but the Town of Durham won’t know how many people to expect at the election until November. A larger turnout means many more people to keep organized and safe throughout the voting process.
Regardless, the town plans to accommodate everyone. Both Selig and Shump confirmed that Durham is working to make the General just as safe as the Primary despite the expected higher turnout. This includes advocating for absentee voting, mobilizing new voters to register ahead of time, and assembling personal protective equipment.
Residents can help ensure a fair and safe election, even those not qualified to vote. “If you are a student at Oyster River and you are seventeen or older, you might think about contacting your hometown’s election officials to volunteer at the polls,” Selig offered. “We need volunteers. Traditional volunteers are older and more susceptible to the virus, but high school students can fill in that gap… It’s a special day and I personally find it uplifting, even after 55 elections. I think it’s a great way to be involved.”
Those interested in volunteering should contact their Town Clerk’s Office. The General Election is November 3rd, 2020. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but voters have the option of requesting an absentee ballot ahead of time. Voters in Durham, Lee, Madbury, and Barrington will have polls at Oyster River High School, the Lee Public Safety Complex, Madbury Town Hall, and Barrington Middle School respectively. The request form and instructions on how to apply are on the Town of Durham’s website, along with more election information. The last day to register for the General Election is October 27th, 2020, and the final day to turn in an absentee ballot is 5 p.m. on election day. If you are concerned about voting with COVID-19, come to Oyster River High School on election day for the drive-in absentee voting.