Digging out from deluge: Municipal clerks scramble amid flood of ballot requests, paperwork
|Published: 02-12-2024 5:20 PM
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.
And with more than 1,600 mail-in ballot requests in Greenfield and no administrative assistant at this time, Greenfield City Clerk Kathy Scott said she has had to pull in people from outside her department, as they are completely “inundated.”
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,” said Murphy McGee, Holyoke’s city clerk. “It definitely takes up a lot of our time, and [we will] have to put things like genealogical research on hold.”
Murphy McGee said her 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 Greenfield, Scott said processing mail-in ballot requests has become a whole new aspect of the job since it came to the forefront in 2020 and it often takes away from other duties because it is “completely labor-intensive” work. Greenfield hovers around 13,000 registered voters and the city has received well over 1,600 requests for mail-in ballots ahead of the primary.
“The Legislature saw how well it was received by the public and made it into law,” Scott said, adding her office “still has the same amount of people.” “It’s wonderful for the voters. The clerk’s office, on the other hand, has incredible amounts of work to do from when we receive the postcard.”
And with election regulations getting tighter every few years, Scott said “attention to detail is paramount.”
“It is a tremendous amount of work,” added Shutesbury Town Clerk Grace Bannasch, noting there are “all kinds of various pieces of paper” coming into the office from voters.
Deerfield Town Clerk Cassie Sanderell said 500 mail-in ballots have gone out, thanks in part 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 in September, 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.”
Although there are costs, including Murphy McGee’s hiring of one 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,” Murphy 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.
Bannasch said with the “traffic jam” of election work combined with birth, death and marriage certificates, dog licenses and annual street listings, ballots have to come first. The Shutesbury 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.”
With Scott and her staff starting their days at 7:15 a.m. and working straight through 5 p.m., the Greenfield clerk urged the same sense of patience and kindness, especially as these additional hours are “uncompensated time.”
“I think people need to be patient and they need to be understanding and they need to be, perhaps, a little thankful that we’re here and we’re taking care of these. … This is our job, this is what we do, but it’s exhausting,” Scott said. “It does go beyond this just being a job; this is time we’re spending away from our families and it just takes a toll sometimes.”
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris Larabee can be reached at email@example.com.