VOTING UNDERWAY: Clerks field thousands of mail-in ballots, prep for early voting and Election Day

  • Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee processes new requests for mail-in ballots Tuesday at City Hall. About 7,000 were sent out ast week. The clerk’s office can accept requests through Oct. 28. STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee feeds mail-in ballots into a machine that adds postage Tuesday at City Hall. About 7,000 ballots were sent out to voters last week. They can accept requests for them through Oct. 28. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Patricia Devine, a seasonal election worker, processes new requests for mail-in ballots Tuesday at Holyoke City Hall. She has to address the envelopes by hand for Holyoke residents who are not living at home. STAFF PHOTO

  • Mail-in ballots exit a machine that adds postage Tuesday at Holyoke City Hall. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

At City Clerk Brenna McGee’s office Tuesday at Holyoke City Hall, the arrival of another stack of applications from residents asking for mail-in ballots for the presidential election gives her every indication that the postal service will be one of the primary methods for getting her the votes from the Paper City’s 27,000 registered voters.

“With the way the mail-in voting is going right now, it’s going to be the busiest,” McGee said, adding that mail-in ballots can be requested until Oct. 28 at 5 p.m.

With city and town clerks estimating that half or more of all registered voters are requesting mail-in ballots — which can be returned via the post office or placed in drop-off containers outside most municipal office buildings — voting is already well underway.

Even with the vote-by-mail option available, early in-person voting for the presidential election will be taking place for about two weeks beginning Saturday in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 election.

In Northampton, the Senior Center will be the site for all early voting, with a schedule of days and times on the city’s website. Amherst’s Bangs Community Center is the only early voting location for the town’s voters, with no University of Massachusetts campus location this year.

Easthampton’s early voting site is on the second floor of the Municipal Building at 50 Payson Ave., while in South Hadley it is in the South Hadley Public Library between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Oct. 17, 18, 24 and 25, and between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. the remaining days from Oct. 19 to Oct. 26.

Holyoke voters looking to cast ballots early and in person can do so by entering the first floor of City Hall through the back entrance, with the polling place open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, except for Oct. 24, when the hours will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the voter registration deadline. Information about mail-in voting and all early voting hours and locations are listed on the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s website.

Going to the polls

How many voters will actually use the in-person voting option, either before Nov. 3 or on Election Day, remains uncertain, with local clerks saying that mail-in ballots seem to be preferred during the pandemic.

In Northampton, 11,163 ballots have been sent out to voters so far,  according to City Clerk Pam Powers. “And I’m very proud of that,” Powers said on Tuesday.

At the clerk’s office in Amherst, a town with about 16,500 registered voters, around 8,300 ballots went out before Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend, said acting Town Clerk Sue Audette.

Easthampton City Clerk Barbara LaBombard said the city has mailed out nearly 6,000 ballots, and has received 2,154 back as of Wednesday afternoon, with more uncounted ballots also in hand.

“I’m not really sure what to expect,” said LaBombard of early voting, observing that it wasn’t very prevalent in the city for the Sept. 1 primary.

About 6,000 South Hadley voters requested a mail-in ballot, according to Town Clerk Carlene Hamlin, and “a couple thousand” have come back already.

“They’re coming in very aggressively right now,” Hamlin said. “We’re out there every hour on the hour, picking up from our dropbox, and the mail is very heavy as well.”

Holyoke city officials had already sent about 7,000 mail-in ballots to registered voters during the first week in October, easily surpassing the 5,500 ballots that went out for the entirety of the September primary, McGee said.

But with some voters possibly worried about whether ballots through the mail will arrive on time, clerks are expecting they may see people at the polls for early voting or Election Day who just want to make sure their vote is counted.

Audette said if someone receives a ballot by mail but wishes to vote in person instead, that can happen so long as the mail-in vote is not already returned. “Once received by us, it is considered voted and they may not vote again,” Audette said.

However, Audette said a voter wishing to cast their vote in person can bring their mail-in ballot to an early voting site or to the polls on Election Day for a poll worker to destroy. Alternatively, a completed ballot can be brought to the Bangs Center to be inserted into the ballot box that will be set up in a special room there.

Changing one’s mind about a mail-in ballot and opting to vote in person is allowed this year, Powers said. For each person, Powers said, “we count only one ballot, and it’s the first one that comes in and we receive.”

“You can’t just come in and vote again,” added Luci Dalton, Southampton town clerk.

Dalton said 2,000 ballots have been mailed out to Southampton voters, but the city had received only about 200 back as of the last count.

McGee, Holyoke’s city clerk, said people with a mail-in ballot who did not vote in person can also bring their completed ballot to the clerk’s office at City Hall up until 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3. Postmarked ballots will be accepted by the clerk’s office until Nov. 6 at 5 p.m.

Any hand-delivered ballots must be in the dropbox by 8 p.m. on election night, noted LaBombard, Easthampton’s city clerk.

Hatfield Town Clerk Lydia Szych said she would like to see voters refrain from trying to have their mail-in ballots counted in person.

“People must either use the dropbox or bring the ballot to the town clerk’s office, not polling locations, be it early voting or the actual election,” Szych said.

Counting the votes

Clerks are allowed to process the votes they have already received, though in most cases tallying them won’t take place until election night.

“We’re allowed to open them and put them in a scanning machine. That’s called advance open and advance deposit,” Powers said. “We’re not opting to advance deposit, but we are advance opening.”

After they are opened, the mail-in ballots go in a secure box that is transported to the polls and is fed through the scanner on Election Day, Powers said.

This is similar to the process Amherst will use. Audette said no ballots will be counted before Nov. 3.

“We are not opting to go with advance removal and deposit,” Audette said. Instead, a central tabulation facility, as she calls it, will be created in Room 101 at the Bangs, with the ballots inserted into the machine and the tape run when polls close at 8 p.m.

In Hatfield, where 1,106 mail-in ballots have been sent out to 2,741 registered voters, and 170 already returned by Tuesday, Szych said the process for counting them will be similar.

“We are planning on advanced removal and deposit of all mailed-in ballots on Friday, October 30,” Szych said, though “running the tape,” or tallying, is not to happen until election night.

“Hadley will be taking advantage of early removal of ballots, but not advanced processing,” said Town Clerk Jessica Spanknebel, adding that 2,000 or so mail-in ballots are out for the town’s 4,000 registered voters.

Back in Holyoke, McGee said the first tray of completed ballots has been received, but she will wait until Oct. 26 to legally begin processing them and tallying votes. McGee said she has five full-time staff members and two seasonal employees, and some poll workers who are working full-time hours, who are helping send out ballots.

The September primary — with its combination of mail-in, early in-person and regular voting — was a good trial run for the coming general election, McGee said.

“We seem like we’re more prepared for this one,” McGee said. “I think having the September election was a good learning curve for us.”

Election Day

For in-person voting on Election Day, the customary sites will be used in most communities, with some changes.

In Easthampton, for instance, Precincts 1, 2 and 5 normally vote at White Brook Middle School. But due to construction on the site, they will instead vote with Precincts 3 and 4 at Easthampton High School.

Amherst will continue with the same polls as the state primary, with the high school gymnasium again for Precincts 2, 4 and 10. All other polling sites around town will remain the same.

South Hadley has introduced a new wrinkle. To promote social distancing, rather than all voters casting in-person votes in the gymnasium, they will be directed by staff to separate areas of the high school by precinct.

Northampton issue

While mail-in ballots typically don’t cause complications, Powers said there have been some in Northampton. On Saturday, a husband and wife notified her that the prepaid envelopes that came with their ballots directed them to send one to the city clerk’s office, and the other to the clerk’s office in Stow, which is nearly 30 miles west of Boston.

At first, Powers said she thought perhaps the couple had relocated from Stow, and the address had not been updated for one of the individuals. But this was not the case.

“Four hours later, another couple sent me the exact same scenario,” she said.

Ballot materials came from the state prepackaged as a time-saving measure. For some voters, the prepaid envelope to mail their ballots back had the wrong address, that of the Stow town clerk. Powers is not sure how many people may have been affected, but she and others in her office came in on Monday, a holiday, and sent new envelopes to voters who may have been impacted.

“With the mail-out and mail-back times, I just could not wait for people to contact me,” she said. She is also sending a prepaid FedEx overnight box to the Stow clerk in the event the town gets ballots meant for Northampton.


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