City clerk apologizes for override ballots running out in one Northampton ward

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, talks about the process of getting ballots to the polls during elections. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, and Bob Riddle, the Ward 7B warden, talk about why the Leeds Elementary School voting station ran out of override ballots for around 45 minutes Tuesday, March 3, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, talks about the process of getting ballots to the polls during elections. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, talks about the process of getting ballots to the polls during elections. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, explains how ballots and voting equipment are brought to the polls. Behind her are the bags used to transport supplies. Blue bags are used to transport ballots. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, and Bob Riddle, the ward 7B warden, talk about why the Leeds Elementary School voting station ran out of override ballots for around 45 minutes Tuesday, March 3, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, talks about the process of getting ballots to the polls during elections. These blue bags are used to transport ballots. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Bob Riddle, the Ward 7B warden, talks Wednesday about why the Leeds Elementary School voting station ran out of override ballots for around 45 minutes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Pam Powers, the Northampton city clerk, talks about the process of getting ballots to the polls during elections. These red bags are used to transport supplies while blues are used to transport ballots. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

Staff Writer
Published: 3/4/2020 12:54:04 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On Tuesday afternoon, some voters at Leeds Elementary School, the polling place for Ward 7B, couldn’t cast their ballot for the Proposition 2 ½ override vote or were forced to wait.

Around 5:15 p.m, election workers at the poll ran out of override ballots, which were not resupplied until 6:01 p.m., according to Bob Riddle, the Ward 7B election warden.

“I take full responsibility for this. This is totally human error,” City Clerk Pam Powers said on Wednesday morning at City Hall. “I take every precaution to not disenfranchise the voter.”

“I don’t want to put any of this on the voter,” she added. “We want their participation in the democratic process.”

The override passed with 8,084 residents voting “yes” and 4,947 voting “no,” according to the city clerk’s office unofficial results. (The city has yet to certify the results.) In Ward 7B, the override failed with 517 “yes” votes and 531 “no” votes. The passage of the override is based on the citywide majority.

Riddle estimated that 50 voters were impacted. “A couple of people came back to vote. Some people refused to come back. Some people were angry,” said Riddle, who has worked on city elections in his ward since 1980s. “Some people were yelling at me.”

Speaking more generally about the situation, he said, “I just feel bad.”

Debi Vacchelli went to Leeds Elementary to vote on Tuesday evening to vote “no,” but there were no ballots when she got there.

Vacchelli, whose husband works in the Gazette pressroom, felt frustrated, she said: “A lot of people were coming in, and so I heard their displeasure. A lot of them were angry.”

After waiting for around 30 minutes, Vacchelli left. “We had other things to do,” she said. “Who knows when it’s going to come?”

Several voters emailed Ward 7 City Councilor Rachel Maiore with concerns on Tuesday, she said. She was concerned and went to Leeds Elementary, where poll workers “were distressed that they had run out,” Maiore said.

What went wrong

On Tuesday morning, all polling places started with 800 override ballots, Powers said. “The plan was to dispatch more in the afternoon,” she said, but override ballots did not get resupplied quickly enough at Leeds Elementary School. Poll workers contacted the city clerk’s office for more ballots when they started to run low, Riddle said, but Powers said she did not get the initial message.

When she finally heard that ballots were running low at the polling place in Ward 7B, the forms got sent to JFK Middle School, the polling place for Ward 7A. “I dispatched the guy to the wrong location,” Powers said. “Both places were calling at the same time saying they needed ballots.”

Election workers were already out that afternoon resupplying polling places with ballots, and Powers said if she had gotten the initial message about a low supply of ballots at Leeds Elementary, she would have had workers prioritize resupplying Ward 7B.

Next time, Powers said she would send all the ballots to polling locations in the morning, rather than have to resupply them later in the day.

“I commend City Clerk Pamela Powers for acknowledging and correcting the problem,” Mayor Narkewicz said in a statement on Tuesday. “I have full faith that she will implement safeguards to prevent this from ever occurring in the future.”

Powers, who contacted the election division of the secretary of the commonwealth, does not anticipate having to redo the election. “They’re going to leave it up to the city,” she said. The next step, she added, is getting in touch with the city attorney.

The secretary of the commonwealth election division does not oversee local elections, said spokeswoman Debra O’Malley. “There aren’t specific protocols in place because this simply isn’t supposed to happen,” O’Malley said of the situation. Similar situations have happened before, she said, but “it isn’t common.”

“Generally, the only way to overturn elections results is a court order,” she said, giving the example of a lawsuit.

Residents can petition for a recount, she added. Whether or not the city will voluntarily hold another election is up to the city’s lawyer, O’Malley said.

City solicitor Alan Seewald had not returned a request for comment by 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“Thankfully, given the large margin by which the question passed, this error did not have an impact on the outcome of the override election,” Narkewicz said in his statement.

Maiore expressed similar thoughts, saying she felt confident in the vote because of the wide margin. “If it had been a super-close vote, we would be having a different conversation,” she said.

Vacchelli disagrees. “I think it should be redone. You can’t just go, ‘Oh, well.’” She added, “To me, it doesn’t matter if it was overwhelming on one side or the other. It should still be redone because it’s not accurate … It’s not fair.”

Powers said she understands the aggravation the situation caused. “I get it. I don’t want to minimize the frustration people felt,” she said. “I apologize for any inconvenience that the voters had.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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