Q&A with outgoing Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain
McClain reflects on her experiences working for the College and Hanover and discusses student involvement with town affairs.
This article is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.
Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain, an institution in Hanover town governance, retired from her full-time role as Hanover’s administrative services director — a position she held for 20 years — on Aug. 31. At the end of August, McClain sat down with The Dartmouth to talk about her time working at the College and as town clerk of Hanover, where she oversaw voting in several prominent primaries and presidential elections in a politically crucial swing state.
You previously worked as financial administrator of the College. What initially led you to Dartmouth?
BM: Wow, you’re taking me way back. My husband and I lived in Washington, D.C. and had been married a few years, and we were just ready for a different pace of life. We actually thought we were going to be relocating to Burlington, Vt. and subscribed to the Burlington paper, and in 1989, I saw an assistant controller position posted at Dartmouth College. And at the time, it was when the shanty towns were being constructed on the Green — I don’t know if that’s something that new students are aware of, but it was an anti-apartheid protest. A lot of my friends were like, “Why would you want to go up there?” And I said, “Well, it sounds like a beautiful area, and the school is really renowned.” I was chosen to be interviewed and they flew my husband and me up, and we just fell in love with the area.
What compelled you to work as finance director and town clerk after 12 years at the College?
BM: I had a very, very rewarding career at the College, and my kids were at the time very active in sports and other activities. I’d been on a building committee for the elementary school and also the town’s Finance Committee, and so had orbited around municipal finance affairs, and I was just ready to engage more in my kids’ extracurricular activities.
I didn’t initially apply for the position of finance director when it was vacant because, as I said, I had a very rewarding career at Dartmouth. But then it remained vacant for a while, and it just intrigued me in terms of what it would be like to work for the community in which I live. So I said, well, I should just find out more about this. I met with my boss — the current town manager, Julia Griffin — and she was very supportive of work-life balance, so she said it would be fine to cut out of here and make it to my kid’s games and activities. Basically, it was time for a change — I had been at the College for over 10 years, and this was just a nice plug-in to learn more about the community in which I live.
How would you contrast working at a college with working in a college town?
BM: My last position at the College was in computing services, and at the time, the College was knee-deep in the expansion of Baker Library where they were integrating computing services. There was much discussion about that, and so I ended up being involved in some of the building planning committees. I remember sitting around the table listening to the headaches that town governance was creating for the building project, just because there’s a process and there’s lots of rules and regulations. So I was sitting around the table hearing, “Oh, they’re putting up roadblocks” — you know, all of that.
So then I transitioned over to the town, and then I hear on this side of the table, “Oh gosh, the College, they’re so big, they don’t understand that they need to do some things on a different scale,” and all that kind of good stuff. So it’s just interesting hearing around the work table the different impressions over time. I know that there are great working relationships between the College and Hanover, but I just remember thinking, “Wow, I’m seeing it from both sides.”
Another difference is, I just remember my life at Dartmouth was a lot of meetings and it’s just formal collaborative work, whereas the town tends to be more informal — and there’s a lot of collaboration, but it happens more on the fly. It’s more responsive — as opposed to having meetings to talk about how we’re going to work together, the town is generally more reactive to issues that come up and how are we going to respond to those.
You have witnessed a number of important primary elections in New Hampshire during your time as a town clerk. What stands out as a particularly memorable primary season?
BM: I remember when former President Barack Obama was running and that cycle. As it got closer to the general election, there was lots of enthusiasm. Up and down the street, people really wanting to engage in the electoral process. And I remember trying to get the student body to help at the elections. It was funny — because you all are so busy, of the folks that responded to my inquiries, I had several international students who weren’t registered voters because of their citizenship status, so they couldn’t perform any official election duties. But we had several international students help, just with basically schlepping boxes here and there and making copies and that kind of stuff, and it was so rewarding in my position to hear them compare our process many years ago to the process in their own countries.
It was just so fascinating. A couple of students came from countries where there were elections where you had to vote or you would be fined, or from countries where it was really hard to vote, and so it was just really heartening to hear how our voting process was really standing out as being exemplary to these international students. Another memory for me certainly has been this latest cycle where, you know, the national messaging is very much about not trusting our local voting processes and not understanding that it’s really local citizens and registered voters of the town that are responsible and running these elections. There’s the suspicion and cynicism around there being fraud and there being mismanagement, and it’s really disheartening to me because it can only discourage folks from even thinking about becoming an election volunteer — and that’s when we need them the most.
We were able to engage many undergrads and graduate students to help at the polls, and that was just a fabulous experience — to actually have the ballot clerks or the people that you first see when you enter the polling place look like our community. Usually, they’re all like me — going to be retired and older — and so it was just beautiful to see.
In a different vein, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your job and the most challenging?
BM: Certainly the most rewarding aspect of my job here has been just really understanding the incredible effort and dedication of not only town staff, but also our citizenry, in how things get done. I remember the power of one person just blew me over when I first started here. He lived on Harvey Lane and he was sick of cut-through traffic. He almost single-handedly rounded up his neighbors and attended many Selectboard meetings and was able to institute changes that slowed traffic on a street. I remember thinking, “Wow, what they say is really true. One person can really make a difference.”
That said, one of the more frustrating parts of my position is, basically, the town just passed the $26 million budget at our July town meeting, and we think it’s a big crowd if we have three or four people attend our public hearings, and that’s where the Selectboard is considering the proposed budget. I understand everybody is busy and there’s no perfect solution to this, but we as a town are fortunate enough to have resources that not everybody has. I’ve oftentimes been frustrated that more people don’t become actively involved in understanding how those priority decisions are made and actively involved themselves in helping to influence those decisions. We certainly hear in my office — where we collect taxes — how exasperated everybody is by their increased tax levy, but then we don’t see people attending and helping shape the budget that ultimately is put before us for a vote.
Many students have registered as residents of the town and exercise their right to vote here. What has your experience been with student voters and recent policies of the New Hampshire government that have made it harder for students to vote?
It is the voter registration process and the unfolding legislative changes that have been one of the most frustrating aspects of my position as town clerk. Oftentimes, legislative changes are made with little concept of the practical reality of enacting these changes; plus, the rationale for the need for these changes — such as to “combat fraud” — is largely unsubstantiated. Many times, these legislative changes are enjoined directly prior to an important voting contest and are then either overturned or upheld — many times on the eve of the next important voting contest. As these legislative changes are being litigated, it is difficult for our office to be able to provide straightforward and understandable guidance to our citizens.
This confusion was most recently demonstrated when the legislature eliminated the distinction between voting domicile and residence. As such, the distilled and confusing message to many of the students was that if you wanted to register to vote in New Hampshire, you needed to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license. This is not necessarily true; however, it was a powerful message that created a lot of churn in our office and many confused students. In an age where so many are doubting the integrity of our local election processes, such unneeded confusion can make folks even more suspect of the overall process.
What advice would you give to an incoming Dartmouth freshman?
BM: Certainly I would say, “Don’t just stay on campus. Get into the woods, get down the street, get into neighboring towns, check out Advanced Transit bus service.” I mean, just become a member of the community. Obviously the campus has brought you here, but there are so many nearby adventures that can be had while you’re here, and then certainly one of those adventures is to involve yourself or not with New Hampshire politics. As a resident college student, incoming students have the opportunity to consider making New Hampshire their state of residence, and so I would encourage folks to consider what that means for them — whether or not engaging in local New Hampshire politics is something that they would like to consider, because we are a smaller state where it may be easier to get one’s hands around the issues.
What are your plans for the future and what has the past year — with the turbulent election and global pandemic — shaped the way that you view the future?
BM: My husband and I just became grandparents three and a half weeks ago, which is so exciting, but my daughter’s family is in Australia, so we’re going to just take stock for a little bit. My husband will continue working, but he can work remotely, and we hope to be able to travel extensively. We’re going to hopefully continue to try to take advantage of the real estate market to rent our house out — and could travel, hopefully, around Australia and New Zealand for several months. Hopefully, I’ll meet my grandchild sometime soon if COVID-19 ever cooperates.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.