The Mashpee Board of Selectmen is considering an indefinite change of polling places away from Christ the King Church on Jobs Fishing Road.
Among the issues cited by selectmen with the current location were a lack of space to meet candidates at the last minute and the need to separate church and state.
In a 3-1 vote, the board decided to give Town Manager Rodney C. Collins the task with coming up with an alternative plan and to meet with parties potentially impacted by a new location. Those parties most likely will include officials at Mashpee School District who have spoken out against hosting polling locations at the schools.
For the last two elections, the town has voted at the church as work was wrapping up at the Quashnet Elementary School, where voting has historically taken place in the town. The board had viewed the church as a temporary location.
Selectman John J. Cotton requested the agenda item for the Monday meeting, saying that he has had a bad feeling the last few years voting at the church.
“I don’t feel that people running for positions in town have an opportunity to meet voters,” Mr. Cotton said Monday. “I like that you can put a name to a face.”
Quashnet offered a long stretch of sidewalk from the parking lot to the actual polls, often dubbed “the gauntlet,” where voters could interact with those seeking election; additionally, politicians could get a final word in with voters.
At Christ the King, election laws have made that last-minute exchange increasingly difficult, as those running need to stand a certain distance from the actual polls. Candidates were forced to stand in the middle of the church’s rear parking lot at the latest election, giving voters an easy opportunity to miss the exchange.
Mr. Cotton said providing space for that last interaction is worth the effort to find a new location. He also said that the layout now provides an advantage for incumbents as well, as newcomers do not have that final opportunity to meet voters.
Others have pointed to the need to separate church and state. A letter submitted to the selectmen’s office by Nicole Bartlett and John Bartlett points out that a governments cannot compel a resident to enter a house of worship and a government is prohibited from promoting specific religious beliefs. The Ten Commandments, a large cross and other religious symbols are visible at the Christ the King Parish Hall.
“As US citizens, we have the right to vote in an auditorium or hall free of religious messages, crucifixes, etc.,” the letter stated.
The letter also suggested that voting in schools can be a benefit for students as they can witness civic engagement in action and that “global citizenship is a recurring theme in the district’s strategic plan for Mashpee graduates.”
Ms. Bartlett is a member of the Mashpee School Committee.
Selectmen did not take public comment during Monday’s meeting, but they did hear from Mashpee Town Clerk Deborah F. Dami, who has said that elections at the church have gone smoothly in the past few elections; taking polling out of the schools, she said, was done for the safety of the children.
The town clerk also rebuffed Mr. Cotton’s comments about the space for last-minute interactions, saying that two challengers were elected to the planning board at the most recent election.
Additionally, Ms. Damis said, she had heard complaints from people voting at Quashnet that they felt candidates were converging on them. And, some seniors had difficulty making the walk to the polls from the parking lot at the school.
Both Carol A. Sherman and selectmen Chairman Andrew R. Gottlieb expressed support for a change of venue. Ms. Sherman wondered if the high school gymnasium could work, but Ms. Dami pointed out an even longer walk would be required.
The town clerk also said moving polls to multiple locations would be costly, and that the only other place that could work aside from the Quashnet school would be the Council on Aging facility. Mr. Gottlieb cut off any discussion on alternatives but suggested that the town manager could come up with some alternative options. He also did not allow for public comment on the issue, suggesting that when the town manager comes forward with a proposal, the public could make comments.
Selectman Thomas F. O’Hara was the only board member to oppose the idea. He questioned if the last-minute discussion between voters and candidates was the only reason to move voting from the church, and wondered if the town could make some changes to the area to create space for that greeting.
But Mr. Gottlieb said that it was not just about the opportunity to meet and greet. He said that voting is a civic engagement and ought to be done in a public space, not a church. The selectman also said that the town would be hard-pressed not to find another solution that would meet concerns of the schools and voters.
Mr. Collins said he would consult with school officials to hear their concerns and would bring a proposal to the board for its next meeting.
Both MaryKate O’Brien, principal at the Quashnet school, and Patricia M. DeBoer, superintendent of schools, have voiced their opposition to having voting at the schools, citing concerns about safety.
Ms. Dami cautioned the board about the expenses for changing the location, including letting every voter known of the change by mail. She suggested that the town make use of the pending census forms by putting a notice of the election change in with the census forms.
Mr. Gottlieb, however, said that the board should aim to have the location changed for the pending October Special Election, which will fill a seat vacated by former selectman John J. Cahalane.
Mr. O’Hara voted against a motion to task the town manager to find an alternative, while Ms. Sherman, Mr. Gottlieb and Mr. Cotton voted in favor.