Richmond Town Moderator Walden Whitham didn’t get much sleep Monday night, worrying about the task that stretched before him: helping run a momentous presidential election smack in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s a place in history no matter where anybody is,” he said, near the end of what had been a smooth day at Veterans Memorial Hall, when asked about his role in it all. “For us, I think it shows a good thing in terms of how the people within the town were able to work together despite their political differences — that they were able to cooperate.”
In a nation whose rifts run deep, partnership overshadowed partisanship in at least this one key piece of the political process Tuesday, as voters and volunteers throughout the Monadnock Region cleared unprecedented obstacles mostly without a hitch. Many pitched in at the polls, others pitched in simply by participating — by casting their ballots for the very first time. Some turned to each other; others turned to a higher power. And together, the Monadnock Region turned to Nov. 4.
Prayers for Election Day
From the front steps of All Saints’ Church in Peterborough, there wasn’t a campaign sign in sight as the church bell tolled 13 times to mark the 1 p.m. hour.
A few moments after the echoes of the bells dissipated from the cool, clear air, Rev. Jamie Hamilton stepped out of the stone building, and began to pray.
“For peace,” she said. “Almighty God, kindle, we beseech thee, in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with thy wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth ...”
It was the seventh time Tuesday that Hamilton, All Saints’ rector, led prayers under a small tent in the front yard of the church, construction for which began in 1917, on the eve of the last global pandemic.
All Saints’ hosted prayers for Election Day every hour on the hour from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. About a dozen people came to pray throughout the morning, Hamilton said. Among other petitions, they prayed for Congress, for courts of justice, for our country, all prayers taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
“They’re non-partisan, which was important for us, to pray for the election, for sound government, for the president, for social justice, for those that we name as our enemies,” Hamilton said. “... We have to find a way to heal and come together, no matter what happens with the election.”
All Saints’ was not alone Tuesday. Churches throughout the country gathered, some in person and some virtually, to pray on Election Day. In Keene, St. James Episcopal Church, which hosted hourly prayers on Election Day 2016, held an election-eve prayer service Monday evening, which was broadcast live on the church’s Facebook page.
At the 1 p.m. prayer Tuesday at All Saints’, which lasted about 10 minutes, the church’s priest associate, Rev. Sandi Albom, joined Hamilton. Albom prayed for “peace, civility, the ability to talk with each other.”
“I pray for safety in our polls and confidence in the ballots cast,” Albom added.
All Saints’ hosted a similar series of prayers on the day of the 2016 general election, Hamilton said.
“Four years ago was just as anxious,” she said. “With so many emotions and worries and anxieties, on both sides, I think that we need to remind ourselves that we are grounded in prayer, and in God’s love.”
Hamilton, 65, added that she thinks political tensions have only grown in the past four years, and so the church community turned once again to prayer on Election Day.
“No matter what we think politically, whoever wins, we have to find not only our better selves, but maybe our braver selves, to have the courage to listen and find ways to work together,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing this for.”
— Jack Rooney
Watch parties in the COVID era
Like the policy platforms of their parties, the way local Republicans and Democrats spent election night Tuesday offered a study in contrasts.
Thanks to COVID-19, Cheshire County Democrats opted against a traditional public gathering to watch the results roll in, according to Secretary Ann Heffernon of Keene. Due to the pandemic, she said, they decided it would be safer to avoid bringing everyone together than to hold an event at the party’s headquarters, as they have for previous elections.
“We’re not doing anything as an organization,” she told The Sentinel Monday. “[County Democratic Chairman] Carl DeMatteo is a doctor, and he is very firm in what is safe and what is not safe.”
The Cheshire County Democrats had given some thought to hosting a Zoom event, she said. But it’s just not possible to have personal conversations with someone in that format, which is part of what makes in-person gatherings worth having, she noted.
While nothing had been set in stone yet, Heffernon said area Democrats are hoping to arrange a Zoom meeting at a later date to discuss the election.
Meanwhile, local Republicans gathered at the Trump Victory headquarters at 421 Winchester St. in Keene, according to Cheshire County Republican Committee Chairwoman Marilyn Huston. Huston, of Keene, fell short on Tuesday in her bid to represent Cheshire County District 5 in the N.H. House.
Huston said Monday that the doors would open around 8:30 p.m., with most people expected to arrive around 9. Though not deciding to completely avoid the risks of the pandemic by canceling the gathering, she said she anticipated most people would take precautions against the coronavirus.
“Other than when we’re eating, most people will be donning masks,” she said. “Some people probably won’t, but there’s sort of been an uptick [in COVID cases], so I think we need to use caution.”
Because of the pandemic, she added, she didn’t expect as many people to turn out to the gathering as there have been at past election-night events.
The Trump campaign closed the event to the press, according to Huston; a spokesman from the N.H. Republican Party did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment on this decision.
Jennifer Rhodes, the Republican candidate in the Cheshire County District 15 House race, said the mood at the party early on was great and everyone was positive.
Party-goers were “excited, eyes glued to the TV, no negativity being spoken,” Rhodes, of Winchester, told The Sentinel just after 9 p.m., adding that “everyone’s spirits are up.”
— Mia Summerson
Health care woes inspire activism
Gene Faltus was busy on Election Day.
A Swanzey resident and Democratic activist, Faltus is battling multiple health ailments, including cancer. He has been vocally supportive of the Affordable Care Act, which he says made all the difference in allowing him to pay for his medical care. He was featured in a video at the Democratic National Convention earlier this year.
By Tuesday afternoon, he said, he’d already visited polling places in Swanzey and Keene.
“Tomorrow morning, I want to look in the mirror and say, ‘You did your best,’ ” he said. “As long as it’s fair, as long as every vote is counted, I can live with the vote. That’s what democracy is.”
Faltus said most voters he talked to were amiable regardless of party, though some were more antagonistic.
He said he wasn’t going to call it quits when the polls closed in New Hampshire. He was planning to make calls to Alaska, where voters still had several hours to get to the polls.
And after the campaign? “I’m gonna be looking for another battle to stay busy,” he said with a laugh.
— Mia Summerson
Poll watchers find little to see
Behind the hand sanitizer, the plastic screens and the volunteer poll workers, Monadnock Region residents may have noticed someone glancing dutifully at a clipboard as they checked in to vote Tuesday.
Harold Farrington, 62, of Keene, was one of those people — party-appointed election observers — watching for possible mishaps or fraudulent voters at Ward 2, where voting was held at the Keene Rec Center on Washington Street.
Farrington, who said he last served as an election observer in 1980 while living in Cook County, Ill., was one of several Cheshire County Republican Committee members stationed at the polls on Election Day.
The role garnered attention from President Donald Trump during the first presidential debate this year.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said.
In fact, election observing is a well-established practice in the Granite State.
State law makes polling locations open to public viewing, including while absentee ballots and in-person votes are counted. Party-nominated observers like Farrington, who are not allowed to speak with voters but can sit close to poll workers as they are checked in, have the added authority of being able to challenge a vote they believe may be invalid.
Democrats had their own election observers Tuesday, including dozens in Keene to inspect ballots and observe polling place procedures, according to Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for the N.H. Democratic Party.
Farrington explained that he could challenge a vote for a number of reasons, including in a case of suspected voter fraud, in which case he would alert the polling location moderator, Matthew McKeon, and contact the state Republican Party. He added, however, that he did not expect “anything wonky” and called the role “more of a formality.” In his 20 years as a volunteer poll worker in Keene, McKeon said, he has never seen a vote challenged.
“The burden of proof to challenge somebody not to vote is quite high,” he said.
Several feet away from Farrington, Lee Harrison, 73, a Democratic Party election observer, worked on a crossword puzzle during lulls in the stream of voters.
A Williamstown, Mass., native, Harrison said he has volunteered for the party on Election Day in several recent presidential cycles. Like Farrington, he had not seen any issues as of 3:30 p.m. and complimented the poll workers for a smooth operation.
“Our goal is to make sure that every eligible voter gets to vote,” Harrison said.
In Stoddard, Joyce Healey, 73, was one of two women serving as election observers for the Democratic Party. Healey, a co-chair of the town’s branch of the party, said she had hoped to keep a tally of who from among the town’s approximately 1,100 registered voters had cast their ballots so that she could contact non-voters late in the day in an effort to bring them to the polls. But from her seat several feet behind the poll workers and their plastic COVID shields, she found it difficult to hear voters introduce themselves.
Still, Healey praised Stoddard’s clerk and the volunteers on their Election Day procedures.
“I’m really impressed with the conscientiousness of everyone involved.”
— Caleb Symons
‘I have to put my two cents in’
At 72 years old, Keene resident Charles Prince never thought he’d cast a ballot. He has always felt his vote didn’t matter.
But after the past four years under President Donald Trump’s administration, Prince said things felt different.
“It’s the right time … to do this. I have to put my two cents in. I can’t just stand idly by and watch this jerk on TV do what he’s doing,” Prince said Tuesday inside the Keene Middle School gymnasium, the Ward 3 polling place.
On Tuesday afternoon he registered as a Democrat, and voted for the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“Joe Biden is real. He wants to help the country, he’s sincere ... [Trump] just doesn’t belong,” Prince said. “I think he still thinks he’s on ‘The Apprentice,’ playing ‘Apprentice’ with the country.”
Aleisha Butterfield, 23, had a similar reason for voting for the first time Tuesday.
She said she wants a president who supports the rights of the LGBTQ community, explaining that her brother is transgender and has had difficulties finding adequate health care under the Trump administration.
“It was really important for me,” said Butterfield, who voted for Biden.
Keene State College juniors Brianna Bergeron and Tabitha Fortin, both 20 and from Berlin, said getting Trump out of office was their main priority.
Wearing matching Black Lives Matter masks while waiting for a ride to the polls from campus, the hometown friends said they were going to vote blue down the ballot.
Both said they wanted candidates who were pro-choice, supported LGBTQ rights and had a plan for better, more affordable health care.
For Dominic Lynch, a Keene State sophomore double majoring in secondary education and American history, finally being able to vote in a presidential election was “really exciting.”
“As an American history student, I am constantly learning about presidential elections and their importance, so it was cool to be able to act upon something I have learned about for so long,” said Lynch, 20. “It was cool to have my voice be heard.”
He voted for Biden and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes, the N.H. Senate majority leader, saying he wanted a candidate who had plans to address climate change and increase public education funding.
Lynch added that he felt safe voting in person Tuesday amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I felt very confident going to the polls with my mask,” he said, “and I said to myself, ‘Oh yeah, we got this.’ ”
— Olivia Belanger
‘Perfect time’ to help
WINCHESTER — Conor Hill, 19, volunteered as a poll worker in Winchester for the September primary, and decided to return for Tuesday’s general election.
“I like to see the process go smoothly,” he said. “I’m happy to help my town out.”
Hill, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire studying political science and anthropology, added that he is especially glad to help during the COVID-19 pandemic, when older volunteers, who typically staff the polls, might not feel comfortable interacting with lots of people.
“That’s a huge part of it for me, definitely,” he said. “My age group’s got to learn how to do this stuff in these smaller towns, where the infrastructure isn’t the same as more urban areas across the country.
“So it’s good for people who are young and home, like learning remote — I would say this is a perfect time to get out there and volunteer and help the democratic process out when it needs it the most.”
— Jack Rooney
Political opposites Marilyn Huston and Randy Filiault were once longtime neighbors on Roxbury Street in Keene. They lived in two similar-sized houses squeezed by side by side, two American flags flying out front, two lawns sprouting numerous signs for political candidates.
One Republican, the other Democratic, both political activists and community volunteers, then and now.
“Politically, we couldn’t be more opposite, but we get along great,” Filiault, a Democrat, said back then. “We’re both the same when it comes to love of country — her son was in the military and I was in the military. There’s no question about our love for this country; we just differ in how we get there.”
That was 16 years and four presidential elections ago. Today, the political maelstrom around them — the “how we get there” — has hardened exponentially.
It was difficult to find optimism among Monadnock Region voters at the polls Tuesday that the election would propel the nation forward and that healing would begin. Many voters said regardless who won, they feared the day after the election would be like the day before — more shouting, little listening, more digging in and retreating to their own political corners. Compromise and unity seemed a distant prospect, even in the Monadnock Region, where political differences historically may be tart but are generally respectful.
“I think those days are over,” said Lenny Schwartz, a junior at Franklin Pierce University who voted at the Rindge Memorial School. “Sadly, I really think so. There’s too much division, too much hatred. Tomorrow could be bad, no matter who wins.”
That tension was aptly represented near the doorway to the poll entrance in Rindge. There, supporters of Democratic and Republican candidates stood next to each other, separated by only a few yards. It might as well have been a chasm.
“I think the Democrats are going to riot. Sorry, just the way I feel,” said John, a Republican, who wouldn’t give his last name.
He said his disdain for Democrats began when Bill Clinton was president and involved an experience he had while in Beirut though he didn’t elaborate. But he wasn’t shy in offering his opinion about Democrats and gave a grim forecast of the two sides ever coming together. “Biden has done nothing for 47 years,” he said while others around him nodded. “They’re just terrible.”
Standing nearby, Joe Biden supporter Jeff Dickler, head of the Rindge Democratic Committee, said the animosity between the parties was becoming like the Crips and the Bloods gangs.
“So many people seem to have so much bitterness. … It’s like the Second Amendment gives them a right to revolt,” Dickler said. “Trump did this. I’m 74. I lost three-quarters of my family to the Holocaust and I look at that and I see the same kind of attitudes here. I’m really scared.”
In nearby Fitzwilliam, a group of Trump supporters outside the town hall said they can’t stand Biden and the Democrats. “I don’t understand how anybody in their right mind can vote for this (Democratic) ticket,” a Trump supporter said. “There’s no bridging the gap.”
Several others in Fitzwilliam said they would have a hard time accepting a Trump defeat. One woman said, when Trump wins, “I hope he steps up the ante against the Democrats. He’s been accomplishing so much and is as open and transparent as possible.”
It’s the same political gulf that comes across the national news every night. Former N.H. Senate President Thomas R. Eaton, standing outside Ward 2 at the Keene Recreation Center, said the divisions permeate at both the state and national levels. “I just am hoping that we’ll have a little more comity in both the House and the Senate,” Eaton said. “I’ve never seen anything as divisive as what we’ve seen, and it’s very frustrating to watch.”
He did offer a modicum of optimism, adding, “... once we get over this COVID I think that’s going to make a big difference with everybody’s thoughts. People are just harried all the time now because they don’t know what they can do, what they can’t do and things shutting down.”
But Franklin Pierce junior Adam Carman, who voted in Rindge, said he didn’t think that would happen overnight. “There’s so much anger in the air, at every level,” he said. Schwartz added that social media amplifies the angst and influences the values and views of many people.
“I just hope for peace,” he said.
In Keene, retired school administrator Dru Fox won an open N.H. House seat in Cheshire County District 6. She spent Tuesday outside Ward 3 at the Keene Middle School and at least one voter confronted her as she explained why she feared another Trump win could make life difficult for those who oppose him.
“If Trump prevails, I just think people who support him are going to be hounding and hassling us,” she said. “I get why Trump was voted in four years ago — I understand all that, the frustration people felt — it makes sense, but I’m not getting it this time. Now it’s a moral decision. People that I love that are voting for him — I just don’t get it.”
Dave Richardson drove to Keene from Williamstown, Mass., to volunteer for the Democratic effort since Massachusetts was clearly going with Biden and other Democratic candidates. He said the past four years have been damaging, and the country has to find a way to heal after the election.
“I just think we have to find a way to disagree civilly and not have it turn into a fight when we disagree,” Richardson said. “That anger — there is pain, and we have to work to alleviate it, but I’m not going to descend into it.”
One of the signs that things were different in the Monadnock Region this election season was the signs. For the first time that anyone could recall, the destruction of opposing signs became routine, on both sides, a national trend filtering down. Bitterness over the vandalism was expressed in letters, call-ins to local radio shows and reports to the police.
In 2004, neighbors Huston and Filiault also had to deal with sign shenanigans. Every now and then, kids in the neighborhood would sneak over at night and switch their signs.
“If she was a Yankees fan, then we couldn’t get along,” Filiault joked back then. “There is a line you can only go so far over, and that would be it. Politics we can live with.”
Times have changed.