2020 election a ‘different animal’ for city, town clerks

  • Greenfield residents vote early in City Hall on Friday afternoon. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Greenfield residents wait to vote early in City Hall on Friday afternoon. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • The dropbox outside City Hall in Greenfield for ballots and other correspondence. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 10/23/2020 6:25:23 PM

With early in-person voting now underway in Massachusetts, town clerks across the county are working “feverishly” as voters cast their ballots, whether by mail or in person.

“We’re only a few days in,” said Deerfield Town Clerk Barbara Hancock. “But it’s been very busy on both ends.”

In Montague, Town Clerk Debra Bourbeau said her office saw a combined total of 120 in-person voters in the first four days of early voting — a number that overall puts the town “in line” with 2016 numbers for early voting.

“We’re only about 40 votes behind 2016, and we did not have early voting by mail,” she said. “I think a lot of people are voting early by mail.”

Bourbeau said between mail-in ballots and early in-person voting, her office has already seen more than half the voter turnout of the last presidential election.

“In 2016, we had a turnout of 4,490 who actually voted,” Bourbeau said on Wednesday. “We already have about 2,500.”

Greenfield City Clerk Kathy Scott, who said she’s mailed out more than 5,200 ballots, said the “sheer numbers” of early voters are in part due to the fact it’s a presidential election, and in part because of the pandemic.

“People are choosing to vote by mail,” she said simply.

According to Hancock, the 2020 election, in many ways, is “a different animal” in general.

“It’s an absolutely different animal this year, with in-person combined with mail-in,” she said. “So it doesn’t feel the same as early (voting) last time.”

Athol Town Clerk Nancy Burnham, who said on Friday that her office has seen more than 900 in-person voters so far, also said it’s difficult to compare current early voting numbers with the 2016 presidential election.

In recognition of the challenges administering elections during the pandemic, the state released several election advisories, one of which grants towns the ability to advance process ballots.

According to the advisory, clerks can do an “advanced removal” (opening the inner envelope and separating the ballot from the envelope) or “advance deposit” (placing a ballot, which has already been advance removed, into a tabulator) prior to election day.

“Each town can elect to do that, or not elect to do that,” Hancock said.

Deerfield will be both advance removing and depositing, Hancock said, but ballots will not be tabulated, or totaled, until 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. Athol also plans to do advanced removal and depositing.

In Montague, town officials plan to do advanced removal.

“We’ll be slashing open all the envelopes for early voters and absentee voters — as many as we can — and sorting them according to precincts, and then on election day sending them out (to precinct wardens),” Bourbeau said, noting there will be no insertion into tabulators until Nov. 3.

Greenfield, however, plans to process all ballots on election day, according to Scott. She said it was the choice she preferred over sending the ballots to a separate, though safe, processing facility in advance of Nov. 3.

“They’ll be transported to the high school on election day by office staff and a police officer,” she noted.

Early in-person voting in Montague is scheduled at the Gill-Montague Senior Center in Turners Falls through Oct. 28; early in-person voting in Athol is scheduled through Oct. 30 downstairs in Town Hall; and early in-person voting in Deerfield and Greenfield is scheduled through Oct. 30 at Town Hall and City Hall, respectively. Hours for early in-person voting can be found on each community’s respective website.

Greenfield and Deerfield also both have dropboxes installed outside their main offices for voters to return their mail-in ballots.

“We have a large dropbox that’s accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Hancock said. “So we’re hoping people utilize that and stay home and not come into contact with other people.”

In general, Bourbeau said she is expecting Montague’s voter turnout to be higher this year than the 2016 presidential election.

“I think this election is going to be unprecedented,” she said. “Get out there, and vote. Just do it.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne

An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date for the end of early voting in Greenfield and Deerfield.

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