Town clerks say they can’t handle flood of mail-in ballots
Special elections show difficulties of voting plans considered for fall
EVERYONE IS IN favor making sure all voters can cast ballots this fall, even if coronavirus fears mean they don’t necessarily do so in person at a polling place. But it’s one thing to champion the cause of democracy through vote-by-mail proposals, it’s another to be in charge of handling the thousands of ballots that would arrive at municipal offices under such plans in the days leading up to the election.
“I don’t think I’ve ever in 16 years as a town clerk been as concerned about an election as I am about the November election,” said Northborough Town Clerk Andy Dowd, legislative chair of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association. “Given the volume of mail-in requests that we’re likely to receive, I’m very concerned it’s going to overwhelm the system as it currently works in Massachusetts.”
As state policymakers consider a vast expansion of vote-by-mail for the September primary and November general election, town clerks are warning that changes need to be made to the vote-by-mail process if they have any hope of handling a deluge of mail-in ballots.
On a typical Election Day in Plymouth, the clerk drives around to each precinct delivering the two dozen or so absentee ballots that have come in late and must be tabulated.
“That’s not a good way to run the election,” said Town Clerk Lawrence Pizer.
After 28 years on the job, Pizer will retire in a few weeks, partially because he does not want to run the November election, with the state potentially still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. His experience running the May election, he said, “was horrible.”
Today, absentee balloting is only available in state elections for specific reasons – if someone has a disability or religious conflict or is out of town. But the coronavirus pandemic is raising concerns about the safety of many people gathering in a polling place.
The Massachusetts House on Wednesday began considering a bill that would let anyone who wants to vote early by mail do so for the 2020 state primary and general election. The secretary of state would send every registered voter an application for a mail-in ballot, which voters could return to their city or town clerk. (The House adjourned abruptly due to downtown protests, with plans to continue debating the bill Thursday.) Other permutations of the bill are circulating on Beacon Hill, including one pushed by voting rights activists that would mail every voter a ballot.
The Legislature already allowed absentee voting for any COVID-19-related reason in municipal elections this year and in two state Senate special elections on May 19 and two state House special elections June 2. Those elections provide some insight into the challenges election officials will face with a larger expansion of vote-by-mail.
Final numbers are not yet available in the June 2 House elections, but local election officials reported just under 3,000 ballots cast by mail in the 37th Middlesex District and just over 550 mail-in ballots in the 3rd Bristol District, according to the secretary of state’s office.
In the South Shore and Cape Cod special Senate election, the percentage of voters who voted by mail ranged from 27 percent in Kingston and Pembroke to 59 percent in Falmouth. In the second Senate race, for an open seat in Western Massachusetts, some small towns had no mail-in ballots, while more than half of Easthampton voters voted by mail as did more than 40 percent of voters in Westfield and Tolland.
Secretary of State William Galvin, the state’s top election official who supports expanded mail-in voting, insists that handling such a volume of mailed ballots is feasible. Because it will be a legislative mandate, Galvin said the state will have to fund it, so city and town clerks will be reimbursed if they need to hire additional staff to mail or process ballots. “We’re exploring various options to make sure they have enough help,” Galvin said.
Galvin said overall, he thinks the municipal and special elections “went well” and added, “We’re also learning from our experiences.”
In Plymouth, Pizer said the special election saw 12 percent turnout, and officials processed 3,200 applications for mail-in ballots. Previously, the highest number of absentee ballots ever requested, in a presidential election, was 1,700. Turnout in presidential elections often approaches 80 percent.
Pizer said there were other challenges beyond the mail-in ballots. There was a lack of staffing to prepare, since only limited numbers of staff were allowed in his office. Fewer than 40 percent of usual poll workers agreed to work. Pizer did not travel between precincts on Election Day to provide oversight, due to the risk of spreading coronavirus. Pizer said Galvin’s office provided protective equipment to poll workers without guidance on how it should be used or whether to restrict polling places’ capacity.
Still, many clerks named the volume of mail-in ballots as their top challenge.
Clerks say part of the problem is that processing absentee ballot requests is a time-consuming, labor intensive process. When a voter submits an application, their name and mailing address is manually entered into the state’s voter registration database. A set of mailing labels and bar codes are printed. Packets must be assembled, with a ballot, instructions, labels, and three envelopes — one to send the packet to the voter, then the ballot is placed inside two envelopes to be returned.
“It’s a very time-consuming process that’s not at all automated unfortunately,” Dowd said.
When ballots are returned, they are kept in the envelope until Election Day, when they are fed into voting machines at each voter’s precinct, where results are tabulated after the polls close.
“The basic process has not changed in 36 years I’ve been in the office,” said Easthampton clerk Barbara LaBombard.
LaBombard said she has just two people and two computers in her office. She was able to mail out 1,100 ballots for the special Senate election. But she fears what will happen in the fall when turnout is higher. “If we get 10 times as many ballots, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said.
Sandwich Town Clerk Taylor White said voting by mail is “really an antiquated process.” “Our system in Massachusetts is designed for voters to show up to the polls on Election Day,” White said.
White said with 2,500 mail-in ballots in the recent Senate special election, “We were working day and night for weeks and weeks to make sure all those ballots were sent out.”
Several clerks said the labor-intensive process increases the opportunity for human errors – for example, entering the wrong zip code or not noticing that two applications are attached to one email.
Heavy reliance on mail also means ballot arrival is dependent on the US Postal Service. In Falmouth, which distributed 7,000 mail-in ballots during the recent special election, Town Clerk Michael Palmer said around 200 ballots arrived at his office on Wednesday or Thursday – too late to be counted. In total, 1,000 ballots did not get returned or got returned late. “People wait to the end, and the issue with mail is we have no control over the post office,” Palmer said.
Town clerks say there are steps state officials can take to improve the process. Applications could include voter-specific bar codes, so they could be scanned in, rather than manually entered. Ballots could also be fed into the vote-counting machine as they arrive to avoid an Election Day bottleneck.
Waltham Assistant City Clerk Joe Vizard suggested that the secretary of state’s office send out mail-in ballots, rather than local clerks. “Otherwise, we’re relying on city and town clerks to come up with 351 different ways to make sure people get these ballots,” he said.Vizard said Waltham has never before gotten more than 2,000 ballot requests, but he estimates he could get 14,000 during the presidential election. He worries some people will not get their ballots on time. “Clerks will come up with plans, but to turn your city and town clerks’ offices into 351 mailing houses for three weeks when we all have other challenges going on at that time, I think, is inviting a problem,” Vizard said.
Galvin said he is exploring what can be done to improve the process, but he must consider cybersecurity and feasibility. “We’re exploring anything we can do to automate or speed up the process, but we can’t compromise the security of the system,” Galvin said. He said creating a system to mail ballots from a central location is simply “not reasonable” given that the September primary is only three months away.