Voting reforms present challenges for local elections administrators

Nov. 9, 2016, Boston - Police Officers watch from the steps and balconies of the Massachusetts State House as Bostonians peacefully protest Trump's election. Photo by J. Graham Pearsall/BU News Service

By Alex LaSalvia
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — Town clerks say more resources would help implement the expanded mail-in voting and new voter registration rules included in the election reform bill now being ironed out in a legislative conference committee.

When mail-in voting was widely used in the 2020 election, local clerks experienced “an administrative nightmare,” said Barnstable Town Clerk Ann Quirk. She is concerned about the prospect of administering in-person early voting on top of mail-in voting.

“Town clerks don’t mind the work,” Quirk said. For clerks, election day “starts at 4:30 in the morning and it finishes at 10:30, 11 o’clock at night. (Early voting) is like having an election day every single day.”

The VOTES Act aims to expand access to the polls by building on changes made to voting during the pandemic that proved popular with voters, said Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. This means mail-in voting and early voting periods would be here to stay, and voters would be able to register closer to election day.

“Cape Codders and Islanders have some of the highest turnout rates in the state,” Cyr said. “I expect that Cape Codders and Islanders will put these additional tools to vote to really good use.”

The House and Senate have both passed their versions of the bill and must now work out the differences in a joint conference committee before sending it to the governor.

The VOTES Act is a statutory bill, not an appropriations bill, so it cannot include any additional funding or resources to town clerks to help implement the reforms, Cyr said. The senator said he thinks the Legislature will look to provide that funding in the fiscal 2023 budget or a supplemental appropriations bill, but as of now no such bill exists.

In the past, the Legislature has passed supplemental appropriations to cover the cost of elections once the actual cost has been figured out, said state Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, in an email.

“There is nothing more important to the vitality of our democracy than robust voter participation,” Peake said. “Adequate funding to support our local election officials is a key part of enabling all who are eligible to vote.”

Barnstable’s town clerk said any changes to the voting process should have money set aside in order to implement those changes. In 2020, the postage costs alone for mailing out ballots cost the town of Barnstable $9,800, Quirk said.

“They’ll have to provide us with people and they’ll have to provide money,” she said. “You can’t expect the towns to make up the difference.”

Right now, much of election administration has to be done manually, leading to a “cumbersome” process, said Julie Smith, Chatham town clerk, in an email. Since her assistant town clerk retired a couple of months ago, Smith is the only person in Chatham’s town clerk office.

“I support anything that makes the process easier and smoother for the voters to cast their votes,” Smith said. “That said, I am very hopeful that the state will supply the town clerk’s offices with access to more modern tools or processes… my feeling is that the changes were rushed, and there didn’t seem to be an understanding of the steps that the town clerk’s offices/elections officials are required to organize from beginning to end.”

Cyr said he encourages town clerks to let their municipalities and the Legislature know what resources they need to implement these election reforms. He also emphasized the need to encourage volunteers to help out at the polls.

“I’m really appreciative of what town clerks did during the pandemic, it was a tremendous amount of work,” Cyr said. “With the VOTES Act, we are asking town clerks to continue to do more, and I think what’s most important is to make sure town clerks have the resources they need to ensure that people can access the right to vote.”

Quirk said she thinks that if the Legislature wants early voting by mail, they should not also do early in-person voting because of how many more people would be needed to administer.

“We’re clerks, we get the work done no matter what, but it’s a tremendous amount of work on any clerk’s office,” Quirk said. “There’s a lot of issues for us as clerks to try to pull this off, make it correct, make it fair, make it something that people will trust.”

This article originally appeared in the Cape Cod Times

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