Ahead of general election, clerks fight to ensure safety and preserve accessibility


By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Ahead of general election, clerks fight to ensure safety and preserve accessibility

Region – Taking their third swing at the challenge of holding elections amid COVID-19, municipal staff across the region play a balancing game, of sorts. 

To preserve access to this function of democracy, they must project and ensure a promise of safety. 

But, to do that, they must actually restrict voting procedures.

“You have an issue of public perception of safety,” Southborough Town Clerk Jim Hegarty  said. “That’s driving people’s decisions about how they want to exercise their right to vote.” 

After smaller municipal and state primary elections earlier this year, the sights and sounds of pandemic voting seasons are not necessarily new anymore. 

Signs and social media postings say “vote by mail, when possible.”

Public anxiety then spins about the security and reliability of that promoted option. 

Meanwhile, at physical polling places open for those who don’t want to vote by mail, election workers sit behind plexiglass walls directing voters to spaced out booths. 

Pens go in boxes to be sterilized. Sometimes, the air smells like rubbing alcohol. 

Much is, indeed, the same. But just over two months after the state primary elections, the upcoming Presidential General Elections still pose unique questions for town and city clerks across the region. 

“Everyone wants to vote in a presidential election year,” Marlborough clerk Steve Kerrigan said. “Add to that the volume of people requesting ballots by mail, it’s that much busier.”

Clerks say they’re swimming in a deluge of paperwork, greater than the flood some still prominently discussed in interviews with the Community Advocate ahead of the state primaries. 

In Shrewsbury, Town Clerk Sandra Wright says this is all compounded by duplicate ballot requests. Those are appearing after voters filed cards in May saying they wanted mail ballots for every 2020 election but then filed additional individual requests for this election.

Kerrigan echoed that comment, also noting that sudden changes in circumstance, including many from college students now no longer living on campus due to remote learning, may also be prompting updated ballot requests. 

“We just need to check and double check and be sure,” he said.

In Northborough, Town Clerk Andy Dowd said he is at least benefiting, this election season, from an influx in volunteer offers. Many of those individuals, he said, are National Honor Society students at Algonquin High School looking for required community service hours now that school is in session.

“They’re really interested and engaged in the process,” he said. “They really enjoy the experience of helping on Election Day.” 

Dowd and Hegarty, in particular, say they’re zeroing in on avoiding ballot marking issues. While they’re rare, Hegarty said issues, like absent signatures on mail in ballots, forced officials in his town to reject at least three votes back in September. 

To fight that, towns are adding stickers to ballots calling attention to signature boxes and including supplemental check lists in their mail packages explaining how to avoid rejections. 

“We’re trying to give people some extra instruction,” Dowd said of mail-in voting. “…Certainly, it’s understandable that, if they haven’t done it before, people may miss a step.”

Then, there’s that aforementioned balancing act. 

It isn’t, clerks admit, a perfect science. 

In Southborough, Hegarty says the local Rotary Club has sent its volunteers to staff a COVID-19 screening booth outside their physical polling location. 

Asking a brief series of questions, those volunteers can recommend people with potential coronavirus exposure cast their ballot at already assembled outdoor booths steps away. 

When one woman recently refused that redirection, however, Hegarty said her legal rights meant he and his staff had to let her vote indoors. 

So, necessary election workers donned more comprehensive personal protective equipment. 

Everyone else evacuated the room. 

The woman entered and cast her ballot. Then officials came back inside and started rigorously cleaning. 

It was a time-consuming process that Hegarty says could have been avoided had the voter agreed to use an outdoor booth. 

But it was part of the challenge he faces this year. And it’s par for the course in the ongoing push and pull that election workers say is necessary to provide safe, valid and reputable polling results next month.

“We’re just trying to think of everybody to ensure that everyone has a safe and pleasant experience when they choose to exercise their right to vote,” Hegarty said.

For information on specifics on how to vote in your town, visit your community’s municipal website.

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