Local Election Turnout Hovers Around 10 Percent in Derry

Derry’s most recent election was conspicuous by who wasn’t there.

In an election year that would determine the course for the town, school and town elections March 8 drew about 10 percent of the 21,000 registered voters. While it was better than some town elections, many candidates and poll workers pointed back to the 6,000-plus ballots cast in last October’s Special Election as a model and goal.

The year 2015 was a tumultuous one for Derry, with ripples spreading from a Town Council budget vote in May. The majority of the then-Council voted for several budget cuts, including the closure of a fire station, that were not supported by the remaining three Councilors or much of the community. When the Council declined to honor a “referendum” petition on the cuts, three community members took the town to court.

A Special Election Oct. 13 overturned the cuts, and drew a record number of voters both for and against the cuts. Parking was at a premium at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, and would-be voters had to circle the lot or park on private property, while then-Town Clerk Denise Neale had to send out for more ballots.

That was not the case last week.

“It’s slow,” candidate Brian Chirichiello, who would later be elected to Town Council, said.

Chirichiello theorized that many voters were burned out from the Presidential primary in February and the Special Election in October.

“It is slow,” Council candidate Marc Flattes agreed as he held his sign outside Hood, the polling place for Districts 1 and 4. “With all the controversy, I would have thought there would be more.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” sign holder Phil Lavallee said. “They got their point across.”

People are tired of voting, Pamela Milz agreed as she held a sign for her husband, David, a Council candidate. “It’s a shame.” The Milz couple were on the side of restoring the budget cuts, and, she said, “We all worked hard to get everything taken care of. This is the final chapter.”

But the implications go beyond Derry and 2015, Milz added. “We are lucky to be able to vote,” he said. “In too many countries, you don’t have this privilege. People should be out here in droves.”

Al Dimmock, who was campaigning to retain his Council seat, said he was the first person in town to vote. “I was in the booth at 2 minutes past 7,” he said. But by early afternoon Hood had the fewest votes of any district, fewer than 450 for the two districts it hosted.

Dimmock did not keep his seat.

“This is very disrespectful,” Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores observed of the low turnout. “This is such an important race. People were upset when the fire station closed – where are they now?”

But both she and Council candidate Randall Kelley held out the hope that attendance would pick up during the evening commute.

In her last election as Supervisor of the Checklist (see related story page 2), Renee Routhier said she had not seen one new registration at either Hood or West Running Brook Middle School. Calvary Bible Church, the District 2 polling place, had two, she said.

“We gained 1,023 (new voters) at the Presidential primary,” Routhier observed. But the town lost 515 the next day, with people who had moved out of Derry changing their registration at the election.

“This vote matters,” Town Moderator Margaret Ives, also on her last election, observed. “There is no excuse.”

“I don’t want to hear any complaints,” Katsakiores said.

“People come out for pleasure or pain,” Chirichiello said. This March’s ballot held neither.

Milz, the lone sign-holder at West Running Brook, observed, “A number of people walked by me and commented that they had no idea this was Voting Day.”

But Chirichiello said he did see the same people who voted in every town election, and a number of stalwarts bore this out. At Calvary Bible Church, District 2 resident Laura Palaryma said, “It is my civic responsibility. I try to do this every year. If I’m in the area, I vote.”

Dan Sullivan said as he took his ballot, “It’s important to keep involved with what’s happening in town. I do this every March.”

The district’s seven public schools were involved in an effort to educate their students about voting, with a lighthearted “Kids Vote” effort at each polling place. Students accompanying their parents to the polls were encouraged to cast votes on a number of spirit week and end-of-year activities. Barka students were asked to make their preferences known on either a Sport Spirit Day or Wacky Hair Day; Derry Village, dessert or a barbecue; East Derry Memorial, a Field Day game of Hungry Hippo, Parachute or Duck Duck Splash; South Range, pizza or a barbecue; Hood, Pajama Day or Hat Day; and West Running Brook, for sixth-and seventh-graders, what theme to have next year; and for eighth-graders, which team gets promoted first.