New Report Finds Massachusetts Localities Making Slow Progress on Early Voting
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I’ve written a few times on the blog about the advent of early voting in Massachusetts – its enactment, concerns about implementation and a recent veto of state funding by the Governor (subsequently overriden by the legislature). Now, with the general election less than 100 days away, a new report finds that many cities and towns aren’t yet ready to implement the change. The Boston Globe has more:
Fewer than half of the state’s cities and towns have finalized plans to provide early voting options — newly required by state law — when Massachusetts residents go to the polls in November, according to a new survey from a coalition of public interest groups and voting advocates.
For the first time, communities are required to open voting locations during the 10 business days leading up to the week of the election in November, starting this year.
In interviews, some town clerks have predicted the early voting process would go smoothly, but others said they are waiting for Secretary of State William Galvin’s office to release finalized guidelines on early voting, holding up their own planning processes.
“I am still waiting for definitive policies,” said Pamela Carakatsane, a town clerk in Ipswich. “I would not even begin to plan anything out…”
For some towns, Galvin acknowledged, there has been a “learning curve” and a “fair degree of lack of awareness” about early voting, though he says his office is working to clarify the procedures. Preliminary recommendations were vetted last month at a public hearing, and Galvin said he will soon release a finalized set of guidelines.
Those guidelines will likely be welcome in the large number of jurisdictions where the planning process isn’t complete – or even begun:
[A] new survey released Thursday by the Election Modernization Coalition — a group that includes Common Cause Massaschusetts, the League of Women Voters of Masschusetts, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, among others — showed a large number of the state’s communities are still early in the planning process, if they have started at all.
The coalition contacted each of the state’s 351 cities and towns by phone. Of the 313 communities they were able to reach, 138 had nearly finalized plans in place, while 126 had tentative plans — a category that yielded responses ranging from “not yet sure” to “considering” certain options.
Forty-nine municipalities from across the state had not started planning, the report said.
The advocates are critical of Galvin for not offering guidance sooner but he defends the timing, especially given uncertainty about financial constraints:
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts,expressed frustration that Galvin did not release initial guidelines for communities to set up early voting until May.
“We had pushed starting last summer for the guidelines to come out in the fall of last year, because so many communities really were waiting and looking for guidance,” Wilmot said.
She added, “I think a lot of communities felt they really were operating blind.”
Galvin said he is not concerned that many municipalities have yet to finalize their plans. He said his office has conducted a survey of the state’s cities and towns and is currently reviewing responses.
In some instances, Galvin said, he asked communities to revise their plans to improve them. Some 75 cities and towns have also asked his office to visit potential polling sites to determine if they are large enough, Galvin said.
In addition, Galvin said, it would have been “a matter of conjecture” to release a set of guidelines earlier than he did, in part because many cities and towns were still waiting to approve their budgets.
“I think the timeline is realistic,” Galvin said.
There is also a sense for some local election officials that they want to get through the upcoming state primary before announcing early voting plans for the fall:
State law requires early voting for the general election but not the state’s Sept. 8 primary, which could cause some confusion among voters, election officials said.
“I have decided I am not mentioning anything in the papers or anything on early voting until after the state primary,” said Ellen Schena, town clerk of Saugus. “All you are going to do is confuse people more.”
Fortunately, there will be some money available to assist:
Though the state will finance early voting ballots, cities and towns must foot the bill for other potential costs, such as overtime pay for staff members working extra hours. Galvin said that based on his office’s survey, he has reached out to a number of municipalities and offered to help pay for additional voting sites if necessary …
Early voting became the center of a funding battle at the State House last month, when Governor Charlie Baker vetoed $1.2 million that would help the program. House and Senate lawmakers later voted to restore that funding.
It will be interesting to see how (and how well) early voting works in Massachusetts this fall, given the late start and lingering uncertainty about specifics. I’ll be especially curious to see how well (and how many) voters choose the option. Either way, you can bet there will be continued scrutiny within the Bay State before and after November of early voting’s pros, cons – and costs.
Stay tuned …