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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Election booths are assembled inside the St. James United Methodist Church hall in Merrimack Monday, April 11, 2011.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Election booths are assembled at the St. John Neumann Church in Merrimack Monday, April 11, 2011, by public works employees, from left, Dean Stearns, John Trythall and Mike Stack.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Election worker Jennifer Heinrich tapes up sample ballots inside the gym at the John Neumann Church in Merrimack Monday, April 11, 2011.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Election booths are brought in to the gym at St. John Neumann Church in Merrimack Monday, April 11, 2011, by public works employees John Trythall, left, and Dean Stearns.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Election booths are assembled inside the St. James United Methodist Church hall in Merrimack Monday, April 11, 2011.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Voting day here: 2 Merrimack churches function as polling places

MERRIMACK – For one day only, paper ballots will draw more attention today than wooden crosses at two Merrimack churches.

With town residents heading to the polls for annual election day, the results of Merrimack’s municipal and School District elections will be determined in part at area churches.

Merrimack is the only town in the Souhegan Valley to use churches for voting. Nashua, Milford and other municipalities across the region hold their elections in schools and town halls or other municipal buildings.

With few other options, Merrimack has continued to hold voting within the function rooms at St. James and St. John Neumann churches. The third of three districts will vote in Mastricola Upper Elementary School.

Voting will be open at the three locations from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Unlike some smaller towns, Merrimack is divided into three voting districts, making it difficult to find sufficiently large buildings within each area.

“They’re just the biggest locations we could find,” Tom Mahon, vice chairman of the Merrimack Town Council, said of the church buildings.

“It’s location and convenience,” he said. They’ve got parking, and they’ve got a big enough room. ... If there was an issue with it, the state would be all over us.”

State election law doesn’t restrict municipalities from using houses of worship for voting, according to David Scanlon, deputy secretary of state.

The state does require, however, that polling places meet established size, safety and accessibility requirements, Scanlon said. In some areas, churches are among the only buildings to meet those standards, according to election officials across the state.

Currently, 13 of New Hampshire’s 234 cities and towns use churches for voting, including Berlin, Concord, Keene, Lebanon and Wolfeboro, among others, according to state records.

“Some wards are very limited in sizable facilities, so churches have been used,” said Sandra Allard, city clerk in Lebanon, which uses a church as one of its three polling places.

“We do get complaints with folks that object to walking into the building, but there’s not a lot we can do,” added Patricia Little, city clerk in Keene, which includes one church among its five locations. “There aren’t a lot of places that meet everything we’re looking for.”

In Merrimack, like Keene and Lebanon, election officials work to keep the voting away from the church’s religious sanctuary. The voting booths are in the church’s function room, and concerned residents are ushered through a side door, rather than using the main entrance, according to Lynn Christensen, Merrimack’s town moderator, who recommends polling places to the Town Council.

“We don’t hold (our elections) in churches,” she said Monday. “We hold ours in function halls that happen to be connected to churches. There’s a big difference.”

Within a few years, voters may not have to make the distinction.

Christensen has been working with school and town officials to explore moving all town voting to a single location at Merrimack High School.

“There’s plenty of room for everybody. Flow is good, but ... in order to use the high school, we would have to cancel school because of parking,” she said. “That’s what we’re looking into now.”

In the meantime, voters will continue to make Election Day trips to church.

“We’re not advocating a religious position,” said Mahon, of the Town Council. “One (of the locations) is a Catholic church and one’s Methodist. We don’t have a synagogue in town. If we did, we’d use that too.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.