That is seen as a reflection of voter interest during this presidential election season, which also includes high-profile contests for the US Senate and House, along with local and regional contests.
“We’ve never had this many absentee ballots,” said Pat True, town clerk in Merrimac, who said that the previous high came during the last presidential election in 2008, when 257 people pulled absentee ballots before the election. At midweek, the number sought this year was 262, and counting.
“People think this particular election is incredibly important,” said True, who has been town clerk since 1988. “So many people have said to me, ‘I’ve got to vote this year.’ It seems important to them, although I have no idea which party they’re voting for.”
Whether that trend extends throughout the state is unclear. Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, said the election division tracks absentee ballot requests, and anticipates the number to match or better that of previous years. It also records the number of new voters, but would not have that figure available by press time, according to McNiff.
The secretary of state’s office has not predicted voter turnout.
In Malden, approximately 2,500 voters registered between the close of registration for the primary (Aug. 17) and close of registration for the election (Oct. 17), according to city clerk Karen Anderson.
“I don’t have the numbers from other years, but from the feel in the office, it vastly exceeds other years,” said Anderson, clerk for 28 years. “The reality is that we register new voters all year long, but people become particularly conscious of it at election time, and rush to get it done. It moves up on their priority list.”
Anderson’s office will also release more absentee ballots in 2012 than the 1,004 released in 2008. Malden was at 1,200 in the middle of last week, and with high demand, Anderson anticipated that the number could hit 1,500 by noon Monday, the deadline for taking out absentee ballots.
In Lynnfield, where town clerk Amy Summers has registered 840 new voters since the start of the year, she has also surpassed the 636 absentee ballots requested in 2008.
“We’ve had close to 700 absentee ballots sent and cast in this office,” she said at midweek. “We’ve been pretty busy with absentees and it should continue through the week.”
With the exception of those who serve overseas in the armed services, who have until Nov. 16 for mailed ballots to arrive (they must be postmarked no later than Election Day), all absentee ballots must arrive before polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day.
One trend that Wilma McDonald, Salisbury’s town clerk, has noticed is that out-of-town college students are voting.
“Four years ago, we had parents come in and request the ballot and they were not coming back,” she said. “This year, they’re coming back. I don’t know who they’re voting for, but they’re voting.”
Absentee ballots are intended for those voters who will be away from their home on Election Day (for military service, because they are away on business or in college, for example) or have physical or religious reasons for being unable to go to the polls. While voters must sign a form saying they fall within that criteria, clerks suspect some voters may request ballots for other reasons, to ensure their votes are cast.
The clerks said that the primary driver for voter interest is the presidential race between incumbent Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, but they have also seen considerable interest in other state and local races, including the US Senate race where incumbent Republican Scott Brown is being challenged by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, or in the Sixth Congressional District, where incumbent Democrat John Tierney is being challenged by Republican Richard Tisei.
McDonald said there has also been interest in contests such as the state Senate race in the First Essex District, which covers Salisbury, Amesbury, Newburyport, Merrimac, Haverhill, Methuen, and part of North Andover. Incumbent Steve Baddour resigned earlier this year, and four candidates — including Democratic nominee Kathleen O’Connor Ives, Republican nominee Shaun Toohey, and independents James Kelcourse and Paul Magliocchetti — are vying for the seat.
“There are some hot races in addition to the president’s race,” she said. “All of it contributes.”
Although clerks may predict the direction that their community will vote based on history, they say that the feedback from voters coming into their offices does not necessarily favor one party or another this year.
“Our take is that people are very upset with the negativity all the way around,” said Jane Wetson, town clerk in Hamilton. “Whether that will convince them to go to the other side, I don’t know. We’ve had a lot of people, both Democrat and Republican, switch over to being un-enrolled. What they have in mind, I don’t know.”