By Nathan Lederman
BU News Service
At six in the morning, Harvard Business School professor Brian Trelstad realized that his ballot for the upcoming U.S. presidential election was rejected.
As he drank his morning coffee, his wife logged in to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website to check their voting status. Of the two ballots they had dropped off at Brookline Town Hall, only hers had been accepted.
The man best equipped to deal with problems like Brian Trelstad’s is Jeffrey Nutting.
A spry 65-year-old in a plaid button down, Nutting has worked in local government for over four decades. He has held a variety of positions all over the commonwealth, including an 18-year run as the town administrator of Franklin, Massachusetts.
“The bottom line is improving the quality of life,” Nutting said of working in local government. “That’s what’s fun. And all the frustration and aggravation and egos and fiefdoms, if you can cut through all that, it’s rewarding.”
Prior to this year, Nutting had never worked in a town clerk’s office. Having officially retired in May 2019, he had since used his lifetime of experience consulting for other local governments. However, once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the town of Brookline reached out to Nutting in dire need of his experience.
Patrick Ward, Brookline’s long-serving town clerk, left office in mid-January on a long-term medical leave. It could not have occurred at a worse time. With three elections slated for the rest of 2020, along with the federal census and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brookline needed someone to step in and ensure that the Town Clerk’s Office would be prepared to handle all that this year had to throw at it.
Early on Oct. 30, in between a slew of small tasks, Nutting notices Trelstad waiting outside Brookline Town Hall’s locked doors. He stops in his tracks and walks towards him to see how he can help.
“I’m sure this is all because I did something wrong,” Trelstad says as he explains the situation.
Nutting, not wanting to leave the professor out in the cold, invites him inside.
After checking with Chris Tisbert, the administrative assistant to the town clerk, Nutting finds that Trelstad’s ballot was rejected in the system because it had already been accepted.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Nutting mutters.
He paces around the quiet office searching for the lost ballot. His first instinct is to check the two boxes filled with spoiled ballots. Nutting carefully flips through about 200 discarded ballots in search of Brian Trelstad. No luck.
“Okay I know, I know what to do,” Nutting says to himself as he bolts out of the office and back into the lobby.
When he arrived early this morning, Nutting used a cart to transport boxes filled with early voting ballots from the office vault to a side room.
Nutting figures the best place to find Trelstad’s ballot would be here, among the nearly 24,000 processed ballots. However, after digging through the boxes pertaining to his precinct, the only Trelstad Nutting can find is that of the professor’s wife.
“I guess you don’t exist,” Nutting quips.
“That would be disappointing to find out,” Trelstad replies.
After more searching and a slew of theories, Nutting reasons that since the ballot was already rejected Trelstad can cast another vote in person. Lucky for him, today is the last day of in-person early voting.
During the extensive search for the lost ballot, snow had descended over Town Hall. The trees surrounding the building, with their orange and red hues, were suddenly accented with shades of white.
“Hopefully this will kill the crowd,” Nutting says. “At least for their sake. I wouldn’t want to stand in that.”
By the time the polls open at 8:30 a.m. a line has formed right outside of Town Hall. Most are dressed for the middle of winter, not the end of October.
Nutting begins yet another one of his many roles for the day as he starts directing voters into the building.
“I can take five,” he shouts loud enough to cut through his mask and the cold wind. He counts each person out loud as he beckons them through.
At about 11:50 a.m. a young woman in a beanie, holding a small dog on a leash, reaches the front of the line. She isn’t the first person to bring their dog in to vote today.
The woman clams up when told that she cannot bring her dog into the voting area. She protests, arguing that he is an emotional support animal, but to no avail.
Upon overhearing the situation, Nutting goes over to the woman and assures her that her dog will be in good hands. He takes the dog’s leash and kneels down next to him. He coos and pets the fluffy, white dog, promising that the owner will be back shortly.
After a few minutes, Nutting gets up and walks the dog over to the exit to reunite him with his owner. Even through her mask, one can clearly make out the woman’s appreciative smile as she takes back the leash.
A little over four hours later, in-person early voting has come to a close. Over the course of two weeks, 6,286 people came to vote at Brookline Town Hall. The rest of the approximately 24,000 early voters sent in their ballots via mail or drop box.
Early voting may be over, but Nutting still has more to get done today in preparation for Tuesday’s election. Following a quick lunch he gets in his car and plunges into the snow.
Early this morning, Brookline’s Department of Public Works transported ballot boxes, voting booths and other essentials to two of the town’s 16 precincts. Nutting must visit the locations and ensure that they have been set up properly.
When he reaches a stop light on his way to Precinct 9 at the Brookline Senior Center, Nutting reaches for a small, disposable eye drop container in his car’s center console. In 2006 Nutting developed shingles in his right eye. His eye has gotten increasingly more red throughout the day. The small dose of liquid provides some reprieve.
Despite being left with only 10% of his vision in that eye, Nutting says it doesn’t have much of an impact on him. If anything, the greatest sense of annoyance comes from the fact that it forced him to give up flying, a hobby he’s pursued since he received his pilot’s license at 17.
Delivering PPE and placing signs at Precinct 9 went off mostly without a hitch. But when he arrives at Precinct 16, located at The Public Library of Brookline’s Putterham branch, Nutting realizes that it has been set up “backwards.”
“The DPW didn’t catch on to the COVID thing,” Nutting remarks.
Despite having prepared three other elections under COVID-19 restrictions this year, the Department of Public Works have placed the voting booths too close together and misplaced various tables and equipment.
As Nutting and a team of three other Brookline Town Hall employees begin to reorganize the precinct, he weighs the idea of following the DPW around on Monday. He wants to avoid doing everything twice.
By the time Nutting returns to the office, the next phase of preparation for Tuesday’s election has already begun. Those working on advance removal — the process of taking early voting ballots out of their envelopes and checking off voters’ names — have a series of long days ahead of them. With 16 precincts and approximately 24,000 early voting ballots to go through before Tuesday, every second counts.
At this point in the day Nutting’s main task is to provide Debby Cohen, a real estate agent who is leading the advance removal effort, with whatever assistance she needs. He hopes that her team will be able to get through five precincts before their mandated stop time at 8 p.m.
As the hours drag on, his wish proves to be little more than a far-fetched dream. Cohen’s team is only able to get through 4,560 ballots and four precincts.
Nutting, who has been idly waiting for Cohen’s crew to call it a day, says goodnight to all as he slowly closes up shop.
He locks every door and turns off every light.
Although he is a humble man, it is clear to Nutting how indispensable his assistance has been to the Brookline Town Clerk’s Office over the past few months.
“I don’t want to sound egotistic,” Nutting said, “but I don’t know how they would’ve done it.”