Counting ballots: The old way is the slow way in Montague
Recorder Chris Curtis
Montague Town Clerk Debra Bourbeau demonstrates the use of a circa-1937 ballot box still in use.
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Recorder Chris Curtis
The inner workings of one of Montague's antique ballot boxes, this one in service since 1937. Purchase photo reprints »
MONTAGUE — Town Clerk Debra Bourbeau would like to remind residents that, generally speaking, their election results will not be in the next day’s paper.
Ten minutes shy of 2 a.m. Wednesday, Montague was the last of 26 Franklin County towns to call in the results of Tuesday’s national election.
This is because Montague, the second largest town in Franklin County with a population of 8,437 and 5,865 registered voters, continues to hand count its election results like the smaller towns.
Elections, local and national, are often followed by angry calls to her office the next day asking why Montague’s results were not in the morning paper with those of the other towns, Bourbeau said.
Bourbeau said she pushed for electronic ballot scanners when she was first elected, but the effort never made it past the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, and she has since resigned herself to the old system.
Bourbeau said she first made the proposal during the tough financial times around 2007 and 2008, when realistically the additional spending wasn’t going to happen, and she has since heard from many residents who want to keep the old system, although there are also those who would like to modernize.
“They like the quaintness of the ballot boxes, they like the small town feel, and they like to think that every vote is going to be hand counted and not machine counted with any chance of tampering,” Bourbeau said. “And because we’re a small town and we like to keep things status quo with that small town feel.”
Voters feed the paper ballots into the antique wooden ballot boxes, two dating to the first half of the last century and the remaining six dating to the 1950s by Bourbeau’s estimate.
One, with scuffed brass hardware and oak panels cracking at the seams, carries a sticker certifying that it was approved by an H.E. Bullard on Oct. 17, 1937.
A geared mechanism turned by a hand crank operates wooden rollers, a rubber stamp, ballot counter and a small bell.
The town hires nine to 12 poll workers to count the ballots in each of the six precincts, Bourbeau said, for a total cost this year of $6,200.
Bourbeau said electronic tabulators cost about $5,000 to $6,000 apiece, and each of the town’s six neighborhood precincts would need one.
“So it would cost about $36,000, which is really not a whole lot of money in the scheme of things,” Bourbeau said, with the machines eventually paying for themselves in reduced election night hiring.
Finding people willing to work until after midnight can also be a challenge, Bourbeau said, but she also sees it as a rare community building opportunity for the counters.
“I think people don’t see each other like they used to anymore,” Bourbeau said.
Bourbeau jokes that the change to electronic tabulators will happen eventually, but maybe not in her lifetime.
In the meantime, she has found an antique clock repairman to look at the boxes, some of which need attention after years of hard use.
You can reach Chris Curtis at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257