BOSTON (SHNS) – With the state primary less than a month away, city and town clerks are staring down a deadline to process an unprecedented tidal wave of mail-in ballot applications, a challenge intensified by limited local staffing and financial resources.
In July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an election reform bill allowing all Massachusetts voters to cast their ballots by mail without an excuse in 2020. The legislation, prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, also established in-person early voting for a state primary for the first time, and expanded early voting dates for the upcoming November election.
The Secretary of State’s Office was charged with sending vote-by-mail applications to all 4.5 million registered voters by July 15. But the work of processing the applications, as well as the cost for overtime pay and postage to mail the ballots out, falls to the cities and towns themselves.
“We’re going to have to stay late to do this work. We’re salaried, but our staff, our hourly, they’re going to have to be paid for overtime. We didn’t budget for any of this previously,” Jayne Boissonneault, assistant town clerk in Dracut, told the News Service. “So we’re going to be around the clock — we’re going to be working Saturdays and Sundays.”
Local officials say the sheer volume of ballot applications coming in — and the truncated timeline in which they must be processed — has been a significant challenge. Voters must return their applications by Aug. 26, but with a strained U.S. Postal Service seeing substantial delays, several clerks said the deadline is too late to ensure that ballots are returned to them by mail by 8 p.m. on election day as required.
For many communities, the increase in applications has been astronomical.
In a typical election, Fall River might receive about a dozen absentee ballot applications, according to Kelly Souza-Young, chairperson of the Board of Election Commissioners. As of the first week of August, the city had already received approximately 7,000 for the Sept. 1 primary, she said. Dracut had received more than 2,000 that week, compared to a few hundred in previous primary elections, according to Boissonneault.
In Brookline, officials expect a turnout of more than 20,000, with 50 to 60 percent of voters likely casting their ballots by mail. The town was able to hire about 10 extra temporary staff to help with preparations, said Jeff Nutting, who spoke on behalf of the town clerk’s office.
Other communities, such as Dracut, have tapped volunteers to help support their staff, and still others, including Fall River, are considering recruiting poll workers to help get ballots in the mail.
“Brookline has the resources, but these are tough times for municipalities, so it’s a challenge,” Nutting said. “But on the other hand, they’re helping a lot of people vote that might not otherwise vote.”
“That’s What Clerks Do”
Though managing the vote-by-mail process is keeping them busy, clerks are also in the throes of preparing for election day and early in-person voting, which is set to take place from Aug. 22 to 28. In light of the pandemic, they’re now tasked with reconfiguring precincts, creating cleaning plans and securing personal protective equipment and plexiglass shields to ensure voters’ and workers’ safety.
Some communities have struggled to find poll workers, as some who may be more susceptible to COVID-19 have opted not to return for this election. Barnstable County has offered up county employees to fill the gaps at the polls, according to Barnstable Town Clerk Ann Quirk, while officials in Brookline have recruited college students for the job.
Despite the increased workload, cities and towns have so far not received any additional funding from the state to cover their costs. Local clerks say that while the Secretary of State’s Office has provided excellent technical support, the costs associated with this year’s primary are an added pressure on communities that are already reeling from the budget implications of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, election officials are hopeful that some funding may eventually come to municipalities, as the Legislature has previously approved reimbursements for early voting costs after the Office of the State Auditor declared parts of the early voting law unfunded mandates in 2017.
According to Nancy Talbot, president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association, the organization’s executive board recently met with the state auditor’s office to discuss the issue, and clerks across the state have been directed to track their expenses for potential reimbursements down the road.
Spokesperson Debra O’Malley said the Secretary of State’s Office is aware of the burden being placed on local clerks. The office made changes to its voter database ahead of the Sept. 1 primary in an effort to streamline the process, she said, such as a barcode system that allows staff to scan the applications to quickly pull up a voter’s information.
O’Malley noted that the cost of early voting has been a concern for municipalities since it began in 2016.
“The obvious issue here is that it does require the towns to front the money,” O’Malley said. “But unfortunately that is what the law requires, and the Legislature hasn’t allocated any money to them for those costs as of yet.”
Voters were also given the option to request a mail-in ballot for both the September and November elections at one time, which should hopefully mean fewer applications coming in ahead of the general election, she said. The office is in the process of finalizing regulations that would allow clerks to begin processing mail-in ballots before election day, with the goal of easing their workload on the day itself.
Talbot, who is the town clerk in Ware, said local clerks should be applauded for their efforts, especially in light of the unique challenges they’re facing this year.
“Is it taking its toll on our physical health? Absolutely. Are we worried and anxious that we may not be able to complete the task? Absolutely. Will we come through with doing what we need to?” she said. “Yes, I believe we will, because that’s what clerks do.”