MANCHESTER, NH — The Monday before the Presidential Primary in Manchester police officers, security officials, and various federal agents gathered around the SNHU Arena on Elm Street. Donald Trump would be visiting. Although scheduled to arrive at seven o’clock, by four, people waded through a labyrinth of checkpoints so they could head inside early. A friendly female voice passed out instructions that could be heard at various places nearby. A variety of red hats and Trump 2020 shirts could be seen. Individuals hawked campaign gear for 10 dollars, cash or credit. These included flags, hats, shirts, and other items.
Across the street, in front of a gas station, with his long scraggly beard and black leather boot on his head, perennial candidate Vermin Supreme held court for anyone willing to listen. A brief notice could be heard saying that protesters inside the arena would be thrown out by police officers. Anyone who found such a person could call attention to themselves by raising their hand and saying Trump three times in a row.
A small, dedicated group of protesters lined up next to the arena behind a barricade. Some protested the continued incarceration of Ross Ulbricht, a young man convicted for running a website on the dark web named the Silk Road. Others protested mandatory vaccines. A scattered few here and there could be found advocating the Democratic Party, though it was unclear which candidate of this party was favored among any other.
In the area surrounding the arena, police barricades had been set up. Federal vehicles with tinted bulletproof windows drove across the corners leaving tracks in the snow, in order to arrive at their intended destinations quickly. Snipers had been put into position along various rooftops, though it was unclear what they would actually do in the event something happened in the midst of a crowd. Police officers in yellow vests stood around talking to one another. Some of them rode about on mounted horses. Every now and then, a pile of horse apples could be found on the street, untouched by either man or beast.
The checkpoint’s rules on the street were draconian. Very few, if any, personal items were allowed. A helicopter and various clutches of birds circled overhead. A police drone occasionally flew against a battleship gray sky. When a plane was seen visibly passing through, people wondered whether the plane was Air Force One. No one knew for sure.
The event had the atmosphere of a festival about it — a frightening, dystopian festival. Everywhere there were eyes upon the event’s attendees. They were herded in, corralled, and made to go to very specific spots. Traffic surrounding the area was slow, sometimes confusing. Intersections that previously had no need of stop signs now needed them; however, for all the police presence, no one had thought to direct cars through such intersections during rush hour. This was particularly true on Central and Union streets where traffic remained backed-up for blocks in any direction. Pedestrians had a more difficult time navigating the intersections than usual.
While the various Democrat candidates had been spreading themselves out across a variety of events and locations, some of which included watch parties, and others which included larger dinners and debates, Donald Trump had one single event — a memorable one, impossible to miss.
Despite the fact that Trump was, in fact, challenged as an incumbent within his own party by Bill Weld, a former Libertarian Vice Presidential candidate, and Rocky de la Fuente, who ran as the 2016 Presidential candidate for the Reform Party, there was every indication that Donald Trump had many more supporters than any other candidate from his party. The irony, of course, is that Trump himself ran as a candidate of the Reform Party in 2000. His candidacy lasted a scant five months before Pat Buchanan won the nomination.
The day of the primary started early at six in the morning, in the blue-black skin withering cold. While the streets were empty, traffic lights reflected off a slick road the surface the color of midnight. Only a few errant souls were brave enough to take in the night air. I was among them. Starting out a little after 4 AM, I trudged my way towards the Carol Rines Center to serve as an election official for Ward 3 in Manchester on February 11th.
The early morning air was pleasant, despite the temperature. The door in the rear was locked until staff arrived with a keycard. From there, after a short breakfast of a chocolate muffin, work began. Others did not go without breakfast. Having gone through training at the same center previously, everyone knew they were in for a long day. All the staff were told to expect to work from 5 AM to roughly 8:30 PM. This prediction, it turned out, was spot-on accurate.
The first hour was household business. Signs were put up, both on the walls and on the floor. Election officials decided what they were going to do for the day. Once decided, they remained where they were for most of the day.
Voters lined up outside, pouring in before the sun had even risen at six in the morning. While a few candidates were notable personalities, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, others had spent a great deal of money on advertisements, such as Tom Steyer. While Democrat Marianne Williamson had withdrawn from the race a few weeks before, she was still on the ballot. Others were on the ballot, but were virtual unknowns. Little did anyone know, shortly after the primary, Andrew Yang would end his campaign.
While most Republican voters chose to support Donald Trump, a few chose Bill Weld. The Democrat vote was split a lot more unevenly, representing a clear diversity of choice. While Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire, the assigned delegates were split between him, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar.
As the day went along, those of us on the other side of the table began to sense patterns emerging. Voters who cleared the identification process, which was everyone, were given a red or a blue chip. As a general rule, blue chips for Democrats (rather than red chips for Republicans) needed replacing a lot more often. Among new voters, far more people chose to vote Democrat rather than Republican. As the ballots were kept private until the election was over, there was no way of knowing who they were voting for.
At times, voters would express a preference for one person or another without knowing which party they should choose. The election officials themselves were prohibited from endorsing any candidates. Political advertising, even in the form of wearing buttons, was prohibited in the voting area. Two Selectman and Ward 3 Alderman, Pat Long, were there as well.
Mr. Long proved to be an incredibly nice gentlemen who, as an aside, remembered me from the last time I spoke before city hall. The Selectmen who worked at the election were incredibly nice and personable as well. The moderators, who had the most difficult job, and who worked the longest, were all patient and knowledgeable.
JoAnn Ferruolo, the city’s Assistant Clerk, had it tougher still. She had to make judgment calls for each individual ballot and constantly be available to answer phone calls from the moderators of all the wards through the night. It was she who also oversaw election official training two Saturdays in a row, which took up most of the day each time.
Such people are often in the background, laboring in obscurity. Their job is nonetheless important. Without their expertise and hard work, the election process, such as it currently exists, would not be possible.
At the end of the night, two large stacks of new voter forms bulged at the bottom of notebooks in which the names of these new voters were recorded. Starting around 4:30 PM, the line for the new voter table was blitzed with people wanting to register to vote for the first time. The line went out into the hallway, and possibly beyond. These were people, it appeared, who had jobs during the day and couldn’t make it to city hall’s daytime hours, or declined to do so, in order to register to vote. The final tally also suggests that voter turnout was higher in New Hampshire than expected- far more people voted for Donald Trump as an incumbent than they did for Barack Obama. The Democratic Party as a whole garnered more votes than the Republican Party- though this may be due to the Republican Primary being a process in which it is generally understood Trump will win.
Kindness, patience, and understanding were in abundance everywhere. Voters and staff were both nice to one another. To top it all off, there was more than enough food to eat for election officials, some purchased, some brought, some donated. It’s difficult to go far wrong with coffee, sushi, pizza, and doughnuts.