WILMINGTON, MA — After hearing a proposal from Wilmington Town Clerk Christine Touma-Conway at their meeting earlier this week, Selectmen will decide next month if all 6 precincts in town will vote at the Shriners Auditorium (99 Fordham Road) for the Presidential Election on November 3, 2020.
Touma-Conway began by telling the board that the State House passed legislation last month, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, that gives Selectmen the ability to vote to change any polling place to be used in the Presidential Election if it is determined that the public convenience or public health would be better served.
“Each [current] polling location is 2,480 sq ft. Although technically, capacity limits do not apply to polling locations, we did consider those limits for the Annual Town Election in order to keep our election as safe as possible for our workers and voters,” said Touma-Conway in a memo she outlined for the Board. “The limits on capacity are 8 people per 1,000 sq. ft., so that allows 20 people per polling location. Of those 20 people, 12 would be election staff, so only 8 people are allowed to be in the polling location at one time. Even if that 8 per 1,000 were to be increased, everyone still must remain 6 feet apart, so it is unlikely that we would be able to allow many more voters into the locations at once.”
Touma-Conway noted she felt comfortable sticking with the current polling locations for the State Primary on September 1, 2020 as its traditionally the lowest turnout election in the 4-year state election cycle. It’s the Presidential Election on November 3, 2020 that she’s concerned about.
“It is highly likely that the November election will be much busier, and given the unpredictability of the weather at that time of year, the necessity of complying with social distancing, and the relatively small size of polling locations, strong consideration should be given to moving the polling locations for the [Presidential] Election,” wrote Touma-Conway. “Besides space, from a practical standpoint, the other important factor that must be considered for the November election is that we do not know what the state of the pandemic will be, and the idea of having so many voters congregating in schools, even if they are not in session on Election Day, is not optimal.”
Touma-Conway noted she has already had preliminary discussions with the Shriners Auditorium, including a brief site visit. The auditorium is available on the days needed for set up, Election Day, and break down.
The auditorium is 37,000 sq. ft., compared to the total 7,500 sq. ft. in which Wilmington’s elections are currently held. All 6 precincts would be well-spaced, with ample regular parking, ample handicapped parking, and entirely handicapped accessible location.
Touma-Conway noted the auditorium is no more than 4.6 miles (approximately a 12-minute ride) away from the furthest current polling location.
The Town Clerk’s Office would “set up shop” at the auditorium, centralizing all functions and “ensuring close supervision to ensure that the change in location and experience for the voters is without confusion or complication.”
Touma-Conway added that the Town Clerk’s Office, Public Safety Departments, and Helath Department are all in support of relocating all poling locations to the Shriners Auditoirum for the November 3, 2020 election.
Touma-Conway acknowledged that such a change would require a massive notification effort to voters, including website announcements, reverse 911 calls, signage outside all current polling locations, press releases, information sessions on WCTV, and extensive use of all town social media platforms.
“It is not without reservation that this recommendation is made,” admitted Touma-Conway. “It is never easy to suggest change, and this is especially true when it comes to where people will cast their ballots. However, with advance notice, expert planning and a coordinated media campaign, it is with a high degree of confidence that I believe in this course of action.”
The Wilmington Board of Selectmen will officially vote on the proposal at its next meeting on September 14, 2020, but members did offer comment after Touma-Conway spoke.
“My initial reaction is how the heck are we going to let people know?,” said Selectman Greg Bendel. “My concern would be trying to notify folks that their polling location has changed. It’s such an important day in our democracy. I’m not saying it’s not impossible, but I have a concern.”
“If we’re going to move the polling places, we need to send out a mailer or postcard to each voting household to inform them,” said Selectman Kevin Caira.
The Town Clerk, the Town Manager, and the Board agreed with Caira’s suggestion. Hull noted that the cost of the postcards could be covered by federal CARES Act funding.
In response to a question from Selectman Gary DePalma, Touma-Conway said the Shriners would be giving the town the space free of charge.
“This is something we believe the board should give some serious consideration to in light of the current circumstances,” said Town Manager Jeff Hull.
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