Digging out from deluge: Municipal clerks scramble amid flood of ballot requests, paperwork
Published: 02-09-2024 8:32 PM
Modified: 02-11-2024 10:55 AM
A temporary worker in the Holyoke city clerk’s office brought on to deal with the influx of mail-in ballot requests for the presidential primaries is ensuring that 2,700 or so ballots are already in the hands of those who want to cast their votes before the March 5 Election Day, says City Clerk Brenna Murphy McGee.
In Amherst, Town Clerk Susan Audette said she hasn’t added staff, but the three full-time employees in her office are working straight out, responding to mail-in ballot requests. And election workers will be coming in before Election Day to process ballots that are returned.
By sending out the annual census a month earlier than normal, Easthampton City Clerk Barbara LaBombard was able to adjust the workflow in her office and prioritize the 2,352 ballots sent out so far. The last batch will go out on Monday, and then more will go out as requests come in. But she cautions that issuing dog licenses is likely to be delayed.
These are some of the ways area city and town clerks are coping with the state law that requires voters have the opportunity to vote by mail in state and presidential elections, along with conventional absentee voting and early in-person voting, as well as at the conventional polls that will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day.
This year is the first time that mail-in voting is happening in presidential primaries. In 2020, the primary was the last election held before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It changes the way you run a city clerk’s office, and does mean a lot of extra work,” says McGee, Holyoke’s city clerk. “It defi nitely takes up a lot of our time, and will have to put things like genealogical research on hold.”
McGee said the city clerk’s office provides ballots to those who have returned the postcards sent out by the state or made the request through an online portal, as well as those who come in person or make requests in writing in other ways.
“It is a tremendous amount of work,” said Shutesbury Town Clerk Grace Bannasch, adding that there are “all kinds of various pieces of paper” coming into the office from voters.
LaBombard’s strategy has included having the part-time help of election workers and senior tax work-off people, assistance that she said is invaluable and much appreciated.
“For my small two-person office, there is no way we could handle our regular office work, in addition to computer inputting the by-mail applications and processing the ballots,” LaBombard said.
Deerfield Town Clerk Cassie Sanderell said 500 mail-in ballots have gone out, in part thanks to the League of Women Voters donating nine hours of time, as well as staff in other departments pitching in. “The processing data entry, it is time consuming, but I’m hopeful we’ll manage and get through,” Sanderell said. The town recently posted an ad to hire an assistant town clerk.
The time commitment is also noted by Audette, who observes that the space for organizing everything is difficult in a crowded office. “We’re borrowing trays from the post office,” Audette said.
Space is also at a premium in Shutesbury, where materials are piled behind the town clerk’s office door, which can’t open fully. That pile, including a shoebox filled with the vote-by-mail postcards, got larger when each precinct in the state was recently delivered an additional 50 Libertarian Party ballots.
“One of my frustrations is with the postcards. It’s not the same size as anything we work with,” Bannasch said.
The mail-in voting process is regimented by the secretary of state’s office, which oversees the voter registration information system and produces the pre-addressed, postage-paid application sent to every registered voter before each statewide election, as required by state law. Voters can choose to request a ballot for the next statewide election, or for all elections in a given year. The voter marks selections, signs the application, and drops it in the mail.
In addition to sending these out in January for the March election, there will be another mailing in July, in advance of the September state primary, and inSeptember, in advance of the November general election, though people who have requested ballots for all three elections initially will not be sent another.
The clerks’ offices typically get the bulk of the postcards back in early February.
“Most people return them right away,” Audette said. “They all came flooding in.”
Then, using the state system and a bar code, the labels are printed, the ballots are scanned and they are sent out. When they return, the ballots are again scanned, signatures are checked and they are filed away.
Audette said when a ballot is received back, she immediately marks that voter off on the voting rolls as having voted so the person will not be able to cast another vote. She has scheduled people to work in advance of Election Day so that these are filed away.
“When the ballots are checked in, it’s not the end of the process,” Audette said. “They still have to be sorted by street list and precinct.”
LaBombard said the election worker pool will help with in-person early voting, starting on Feb. 24, and the advance processing of the by-mail and in-person early votes, beginning on Feb. 26.
Although there are costs,including McGee’s hiring of temporary worker now and likely two temporary workers before the presidential election, the postage, at 88 cents per ballot sent out, along with other costs such as for printer cartridges and toner, will be reimbursed by the state.
Much of the work is done in advance of the election, but on Election Day, too, Holyoke’s election workers throughout the day will not only be responsible for checking in voters, but depositing the early ballots into the machines.
“All mail-in ballots will be going to the polls,” McGee said.
In Deerfield, Sanderell has advised some people seeking to come in to file their marriage intentions to wait, if at all possible. “It doesn’t feel great to delay,” Sanderell said.
But Bannasch said with the “traffic jam” of election work, birth, death and marriage certificates and dog licenses and annual street listings, ballots have to come first, and the office likely won’t be catching up on some of the work until December.
“It’s inevitable that we will have to drop some of our non-election duties,” Bannasch said. “I urge everyone to be kind to town clerks this year.”Scott Merzbach can be reached at email@example.com.