Town clerks across the state are preparing now for the first year in which early voting will be permitted in state elections.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick signed the election reform law on May 22, 2014 to allow early voting in state biennial elections, starting 11 business days before an election and ending two business days before Election Day. This year, that means early voting will begin Monday, Oct. 24 and conclude on Friday, Nov. 4.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
“It won’t be for the primary [Sept. 8],” Whitman Town Clerk Dawn Varley said. “It won’t be for town elections or anything else.”
The hard part for town clerks is planning when they have no idea what to expect by way of participation, but they are setting up centralized voting locations in Whitman and Hanson town halls. Varley is also working to determine how many election workers she may need to use. Hanson Town Clerk Elizabeth Sloan, meanwhile, said she has no funds to hire any extra help.
The state is not providing additional funding to provide extra poll workers.
As of right now, Whitman is planning to limit voting to the centralized location of Town Hall, where voting usually takes place, and during normal business hours due to the lack of funds for the staffing that expanded hours would require, according to Varley.
“This is the first year, too,” she said. “We’re not sure what it’s going to entail.”
Larger communities may be allowed to move early voting locations around.
“I don’t have the staff and money to do that,” Varley said, who has asked the Finance Committee for $2,000 for additional election workers. “I plan on hiring my election workers to do it.”
“I don’t have extra people to put on,” Sloan said. “If it’s really crazy I would have to ask the Finance Committee for extra money to try to get it. … I’m going to play it by ear to see how it goes.”
The problem with added help becomes the time involved in training anyone that might be hired, Sloan noted.
Varley will have a space for early voting in her office, but has not seen the ballots yet, so there is no information on whether the early voting ballots will be a different color — or how long they will be.
“I’ve heard the November ballot, potentially, is going to be two pages, because of the questions,” Varley said. “They haven’t determined that yet.”
Then there is the number of ballots with which clerks’ offices must contend.
“We’re going to have an absentee ballot, an early voting ballot, we’re going to have a regular ballot, then there’s the possibility of an 18-month-rule ballot,” Varley said.
The latter would provide for residents who have moved out of town within the previous 18 months to cast a ballot for presidential candidates and other federal races listed — providing they are not registered in another town and sign an affidavit.
“It’s still a work in progress,” she said. “We’ll see how this year goes and take it from there.”
Hanson, too, is setting up a voting location for early voting.
“Our central voting location is going to be the Town Clerk’s office like it always is for absentee [voting],” Sloan said. “It’s just going to be busier because we’re going to have absentee and early voting at the same time.”
Sloan has ordered extra voting booths in order to set up a voting area of four booths in the Town Clerk’s office in addition to the current area outside the office where absentee voting is conducted. Those booths, too, are being expanded to supply two to four booths there.
“You really don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Sloan said. “It’s the first time, so we’ll have to wait and see.
The election reform law also permits early registration for 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, although they would not be permitted to cast ballots until age 18. For more information on registering to vote, visit the Secretary of State’s website at sec.state.ma.us.
“It’s a very user-friendly website,” Varley said. “They can register to vote, check ‘Where do I vote?’ and all the information for absentee voting is there.”
The law also requires the state to audit 3 percent of precincts during presidential election years to make sure voting machines are working correctly. It establishes a task force to pin down the cost and administrative requirements of the early voting provision and examine other voting issues such as same-day voter registration.
A Republican-backed provision for voter ID cards was rejected by lawmakers.