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Town clerks ready for write-in challenge

  • Northampton City Clerk Pam Powers runs test ballots through the city of Northampton's new ballot counting machines on Monday. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Northampton City Clerk Pam Powers runs test ballots through the City of Northampton's new ballot counting machines on Monday August 27, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Northampton City Clerk Pam Powers runs test ballots through the City of Northampton's new ballot counting machines on Monday August 27, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Joel Bergeron sets up a ballot machine to be tested on Monday August 27, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON



@BeraDunau
Monday, August 27, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Town and city clerks in the 24 communities covered by the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate District, in addition to running a primary election the day after the Labor Day holiday, will have to deal with the competitive race for the Democratic nomination in the seat, which features four candidates, three of whom are write-ins.

However, of the six clerks interviewed Monday, none expressed any panic.

“It’s going to be fine,” said Northampton City Clerk Pamela Powers.

“It’s going very well,” said Amherst Town Clerk Margaret Nartowicz, on preparations for primary day.

“It’s not going to be so bad,” said Montague Town Clerk Debra Bourbeau.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sept. 4. In one of the marquee contests, Chelsea Kline, the only Democrat on the ballot for the Senate seat, will face write-in candidates Ryan O’Donnell, Steven Connor and Jo Comerford. Kline is an educator and women’s rights advocate, O’Donnell is the president of the Northampton City Council, Connor is the director of Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services and Comerford is a former campaign director at MoveOn.org. All reside in Northampton.

Powers said it will be up to the individual election wardens in Northampton whether they want to hire additional staff to help in counting the write-in votes. The other clerks, however, said that they’re bringing on extra people.

“I do have extra people coming in,” said Hadley Town Clerk Jessica Spanknebel.

“I’m going to have extra people,” said Hatfield Town Clerk Lydia Szych.

In the communities that count ballots via optical scanner, unofficial results will be available after 8 p.m. However, this will not reveal much about the write-in result, aside from the number of write-in votes for a particular race, and even then people may have cast write-in votes and not filled in the oval indicating that they’re casting a write-in. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that votes will be lost in the shuffle.

“Every single ballot will be looked at for the election,” said Powers, a state of affairs that was echoed by the other clerks spoken to, some of whom cited it as a matter of state law.

Ballots with write-ins on them in optical scanner communities will be separated out, and then the write-in votes will be tallied.

Voter intent

The standard for counting a write-in vote in Massachusetts is voter intent. So long as it is clear who the voter is voting for, the vote will be counted. As such, things like a misspelled name or not including an address will not invalidate a vote. Filling in the bubble for a candidate on the ballot while also casting a vote for a write-in for the same office will, however. Similarly, if one writes in a candidate for an office they are not running for, that vote won’t be applied to the office the candidate is actually seeking.

To make sure of a write-in vote, Powers said, write in the chosen candidate for the proper office and fill in the bubble next to the write-in option.

Powers also noted that unenrolled voters and voters who aren’t members of the Libertarian, Democratic or Republican parties need to be sure of which party’s ballot they’re taking ahead of time, because once they select a party’s ballot they can’t exchange it for another this election, even if they void it.

In communities that count votes by hand, the ballot does not have a specific space for a write-in candidate. However, if voters write in a candidate underneath the solid line below the candidate on the ballot, the write-in vote will be counted, with the same rules for intent in place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this has proven confusing to some voters.

“It’s an issue already,” said Bourbeau, saying that it already has proven confusing to voters casting absentee ballots.

To mitigate this, Bourbeau said she has plastered instructions on how to cast a write-in vote all around the precinct, and on its doors.

Whately Town Clerk Lynn Sibley said she is waiting on getting clearer instructions for voters on how to cast write-in votes in hand-count communities from the secretary of state’s office. In the meantime, she has the current instructions displayed.

Estimates varied on expected voter turnout, although no one said they thought it would be down.

“Probably higher than most primaries,” said Sibley, although she didn’t volunteer a number.

Powers said she thinks that turnout will be 30 percent, with 25 percent being typical for a race like this.

“I’d be ecstatic with 20 percent,” said Spanknebel.

Szych predicted a higher than normal tally, noting the high number of absentee ballots.

“You’ve got big things going on this year,” she said.

Absentee ballots

In terms of absentee ballots, the deadline for requesting one is 5 p.m. this Friday, and they must be returned either by mail or in-person by 8 p.m. on primary day. Absentee ballots may only be requested by those who will be out of town on primary day, by those with a disability that prevents access to the polling place or if one has a religious conflict.

In terms of when the Senate results will be known in optical scan communities, times and attitudes varied between the clerks.

“This is not unusual for them to have to do this,” said Powers, who estimated 9:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

“It’s probably going to be a late night to be honest with you,” said Nartowicz, who estimated after 9.

“We’re going to do it as quick as we can,” said Szych.

Aside from the large number of write-in votes expected in the race, the timing of the holiday is also impacting the election.

Because of Labor Day, polling places are being set up on Friday, as opposed to the day before the election that they typically are.

“That’s a little bit different,” said Powers.

It’s also the first day of school, and Powers said Northampton is looking to hire additional constables for the precincts in schools, to make sure that voters don’t go into areas they aren’t authorized for. The constable pay will be $16 an hour.

Communities whose town clerk’s office is normally closed on Friday, or who have shorter hours, will also have to stay open until 5 p.m. this Friday, due to the upcoming holiday.

Amherst and Northampton also have additional wrinkles of their own for this election.

Northampton will be rolling out new optical scanning machines to tabulate votes. The previous machines were also optical scanners, despite being 22 years old.

“That classifies as an antique,” said Powers.

Amherst, meanwhile, will be holding its preliminary election for its newly created Town Council on Sept. 4 as well. As a result, a major recruitment effort and several trainings for election workers has been held there. Extra signs will be deployed, and the precincts have ballots for both sets of races.

“We’re just doubling up,” Nartowicz said.

Bourbeau expressed a desire for the election law to be changed, both in regards to how the hand-count ballot is laid out, and in having primaries during this time of year. She also said it would have been a lot nicer to hold the primary this week, as opposed to next.

“Why not fix the law?” she said.

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