Ballot confusion in Senate race revolves around write-in process

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2018 12:17:22 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Sept. 4 primary ballot in 10 of the smaller communities in the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District where votes are counted by hand won’t have space specifically designated for a write-in vote — a development that has at least one candidate’s campaign worried that the confusion will lead to lost votes.

On Wednesday, candidate Jo Comerford’s campaign raised the issue in a letter to Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin. The campaign requested that the state reprint the ballots with space for write-in candidates, or, if that wasn’t possible, provide materials explaining to voters how to cast a write-in vote to be distributed with every ballot and/or prominently post signs with such instructions at every polling place.

The towns in the district where votes are counted by hand consist of Colrain, Leverett, Leyden, Montague, New Salem, Royalston, Shutesbury, Warwick, Wendell and Whately.

Galvin’s office said Thursday that the ballots are printed correctly according to state law, but that it would provide materials to be used at the polls that explain how to vote for a write-in candidate.

According to the office, the state law governing primaries has different specifications used for hand-counted ballots than those that are counted with optical scanning machines. Ballots counted by optical scanner, which are utilized in district communities that include Northampton, Amherst, Hatfield, Hadley, Greenfield and Orange, have to have a specific write-in space. By contrast, ballots that are hand-counted are only able to have a write-in space “where there are fewer names than there are persons to be chosen.”

There is no specific write-in space on the paper ballots in these towns because the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District has a candidate on the ballot — Northampton educator and women’s rights advocate Chelsea Kline — and because only one candidate in the race can win the office, an attorney for Galvin’s office said in a letter to the Comerford campaign.

“We have to print ballots in accordance with the statutes,” said Debra O’Malley, of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

While voters can still write in their preferred candidate’s name below Kline’s name on the ballot, there are no instructions on how to do this on the ballots themselves.

The other write-in candidates running for the seat formerly held by Stanley Rosenberg are also from Northampton. They are Comerford, a former MoveOn.org campaign director, Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell, and Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services Director Steven Connor.

Attorney Marissa Elkins, who wrote the letter to Galvin’s office on behalf of Comerford’s campaign, said early absentee voters have been confused by the paper ballot in the 10 communities where votes will be counted by hand. She cited a section of Massachusetts law that requires a space for a write-in vote on the ballot in her request for new ballots with spaces for write-in votes. The other campaigns were also included on the email.

Speaking to the Gazette, Elkins said that the campaign’s letter was “born out of real voter responses” and that a number of people had been confused when trying to cast write-in votes in the hand count areas.

“We didn’t set out to make this an issue,” she said.

In its response, Galvin’s office said that the section of law cited by Elkins applies to general elections, and not primaries, where there are separate requirements for hand-counted and optical scan ballots.

Attorney Michelle Tassinari also noted the two meetings the office held in the district where write-in issues were covered, and that materials on write-in voting will be posted next to the sample ballot at each voting location. Additionally, local election officials were provided additional materials on writing in candidate’s names or using stickers, she said.

Voter intent

In Massachusetts, the standard for counting a write-in vote is voter intent, meaning a vote will be counted if a voter’s intent can be reasonably determined.

Elkins praised the work the town clerks in the district are doing to follow this standard.

“They’re all working very hard to implement that fairly,” she said.

Elkins said that the campaign really cares about breaking down barriers to vote.

“They’re interpreting the statute the way they are,” Elkins said. “We’ll go the extra mile.”

She said the Comerford campaign would work to educate people on how to vote for a write-in candidate in these communities, whatever write-in candidate that might be.

Comerford echoed Elkins’ sentiments on voter education, and gave credit to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s decision to post the write-in vote information at polling places.

“We care about fairness,” she said.

O’Donnell said he had some concerns about reissuing ballots after people have been taught to cast write-in votes in specific ways, and he said that his campaign has been doing education efforts on how to properly cast write-in ballots in areas where votes will be counted by hand.

“Limiting voter confusion is paramount,” he said.

However, he did not say he opposed the idea of issuing new ballots, and said that there ideally should be write-in spaces on the hand-count ballots.

“There’s no question that that’s the way it should be done,” he said.

He also said that, as a legislator, he’s seen “weird” provisions in law like the one the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth is citing.

Connor said that he would have liked a reissue of the ballots, and that hand-count ballots are confusing.

“It’s tough enough to get people to do a write-in,” he said. “There’s no space.”

He also said his campaign would be releasing materials on how to do a write-in vote in the hand-count areas.

“It’s another hurdle,” he said.

Kline said that she passionately supports removing barriers to voting. She noted her support for ranked choice voting, same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration.

“We need to bring more people into our democratic process, and make it easier for them to exercise their right to vote,” she said, via text.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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