On Monday night, almost 100 Marblehead residents gathered under at tent in the pouring rain outside the Veterans Middle School for a Town Meeting that saw the approval of 17 articles, including a $97 million-plus budget.

In a similar vein, on Saturday, 272 voters in properly spaced chairs on a West Newbury ballfield held up their cards and made democracy happen there.

And on June 22, when Merrimac’s polls opened for a town election strained by the limits of a pandemic, Town Clerk Gwen Lay Sabbagh had help from other town and city clerks to make things run smoothly.

Traditional New England town meetings and local elections have been turned on their heads, along with everything else. Some clerks have taken their town meetings outdoors, with planning, well-separated chairs, and requests that voters wear masks and respect social distancing guidelines. Salisbury, which held its meeting inside a hot gymnasium, was an outlier. In spite of well-spaced chairs, having the meeting inside likely scared off any number of older voters fearful of the virus.

Local elections have had to adapt as well, with clerks urging residents to mail in ballots or, if they plan to vote in person, to abide by the rules to keep every safe.

Lay Sabbagh, the Merrimac town clerk, said she was concerned about keeping poll workers safe, especially those in high-risk categories. So to get the job done, “we have been creative in having new poll workers assist with our elections,” including three town hall employees who could help because Town Hall itself is still closed to the public.

Lay Sabbagh also had help from Amesbury City Clerk Christine Dixon, North Andover Town Clerk Trudy Reid, Haverhill Assistant City Clerk James Blatchford and Town Clerk Valerie Fox, who drove up from Lincoln to lend a hand. Fox said Lincoln’s election had been the week before, “so I was delighted to be able to offer support” with Merrimac’s election.

Lay Sabbagh noted, “City and town clerks have a long history of helping each other,” often when there is a recount or special election. With election dates on different days this year, “We can help each other because there are fewer conflicts in same-day elections.”

Open-air town meetings on a ballfield or in a stadium. Willing and able town officials and volunteers stepping up to help in a neighbor’s town election. 

This is what democracy looks like.


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