How crowded is the election field in Boston this fall? So crowded that election officials are worried that mobs of competing poll checkers inside polling places will leave no room for voters.
The field is so crowded that signs for the 50 candidates running for mayor and City Council may blot out sunlight at some polling places. Dozens of canvassers are expected to line sidewalks outside, forcing voters to run a gantlet of brochures and slogans to get to the ballot box.
To fight democratic gridlock, the city wants to make sure traffic keeps moving on election day. The most pressing issue will be poll checkers: campaign workers stationed inside voting places who check off names and play a crucial role in get-out-the-vote operations.
Campaigns are allowed to station observers inside voting stations, but some of Boston’s polling places are in cramped spaces in churches and senior centers. There simply may not be room for all the poll checkers, forcing campaigns to share.
“We’re concerned about how many bodies we can fit in one space,” said Geraldine Cuddyer, chairwoman of the Board of Election Commissioners. “We want to make sure that on Election Day we are not spending the day refereeing.”
Election officials staff each polling place with at least seven people, but some precincts have more. Staff includes a police officer, language translators, election inspectors, and a warden, who is in charge. The addition of a dozen campaign poll checkers might be too much.
“Some of these [polling] places are tiny,” Cuddyer said.
‘We’re concerned about how many bodies we can fit in one space.’ — GERALDINE CUDDYER, Board of Election Commissioners chairwoman
Election officials have tried to identify tight spots long before the Sept. 24 preliminary election. A letter sent at the beginning of the month asked each candidate to provide a list by Friday of the top 35 precincts in which they want to station poll checkers. The idea was to pinpoint the most popular polling places in advance and determine whether there will be enough space to accommodate all campaigns.
By Friday afternoon, only five of the 50 campaigns had submitted a list of their top precincts. One of the many holdouts was the mayoral campaign of state Representative Martin J. Walsh.
“We will not give up our list,” said Walsh’s campaign manager, Megan Costello. “We will be in every precinct making sure that the voters we have identified over the past several months who support Marty go to the polls.”
Mayoral candidate Charlotte Golar Richie said in a statement that she had not decided whether to provide the list, but she feared the information would “divulge campaign strategy.” The mayoral campaign of Councilor Rob Consalvo raised the same objection, saying the list would be a public record as soon as it was given to the Election Department.
Election officials vowed to safeguard the information and use it only to tally how many poll checkers would be in each voting place.
“This is an issue of numbers and space,” Cuddyer said. “It has nothing to do with their strategy. I couldn’t care less about their strategy. All we’re doing is literally trying to figure out how many people can fit in a room.”
The mayoral campaign of Councilor Michael P. Ross will probably share its top 35 precincts with the Election Department, said spokesman Josh Gee. But Ross’s campaign planned to send a representative to a logistics meeting called by the Election Department for Tuesday to make sure they understand the process.
“If the city says they are going to keep it confidential, we trust them,” Gee said.
Election officials said they did not plan to identify individual campaigns by name in records. Instead, they plan to create a spreadsheet to tally the number of expected poll checkers for each of Boston’s 255 precincts.
State election law allows, but does not require, that access can be given to campaign observers inside polling places, according to Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin.
Election officials must read aloud a name when a voter arrives to cast a ballot. Poll checkers sit nearby with voting lists and cross people off. Poll checkers pass the information to their campaigns, which then target people who have not yet voted. Field organizers have volunteers make phone calls or knock on doors to get holdouts to the polls.
With a dozen candidates on the ballot for mayor, the electorate will be splintered. Voter turnout will be crucial.
“We want to have poll checkers and observers in more than just 35 precincts. We want to have them in the entire city,” said Michael Sherry, spokesman for the mayoral campaign of Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “We understand [the Election Department’s] concerns. They obviously have been dealt a very tough position and must make the best of it.”
State election rules offer a solution. McNiff from the secretary of state’s office read from the guidelines: “If there are so many observers in the polling place that they obstruct voters, they may be asked to cooperate in collecting information.”
That means rival campaigns may be forced to work together and share information on Election Day, in the name of democracy.
“People have to be able to vote,” McNiff said. “That takes precedence.”