Metro

Mass. towns prepare for first-ever early voting

Voters cast ballots at a polling station for Massachusetts' primary election, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in North Andover, Mass. Voters from Vermont to Colorado, Alaska to American Samoa and a host of states in between are heading to polling places and caucus sites on the busiest day of the 2016 primaries. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Elise Amendola/AP/file 2016

Voters cast their ballots in March duringMassachusetts’ primary.

For the first time ever, Massachusetts will hold an early-voting period ahead of the general election in November, giving residents more time to get to the polls — but worrying town clerks who must administer the new program.

The early-voting law, signed in 2014 by then-Governor Deval Patrick, requires communities to let residents vote during a 10-day window immediately preceding Election Day during biennial statewide elections. This is the first year Massachusetts will try it out.

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Now, communities across the state must determine how to best undertake early voting — a task that is more complicated than it seems.

The 2014 law stipulates that cities and towns must have at least one early voting site open during business hours. It also gives municipalities the ability to extend their hours, hold polling hours on weekends, and establish additional voting sites — though they are not required to do so. Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVote, a group that advocated for early voting, said she is encouraging towns and cities with populations over 35,000 to create more than one early voting site.

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Pam Wilmot, executive director for Common Cause Massachusetts, another organization that pushed for early voting, said data from elsewhere has shown that early voting and extended hours will be of particular help to people of color and lower-income voters, who may have more unpredictable schedules and difficulty getting to the polls on Election Day.

Several towns and cities have already begun planning for early voting, which begins Oct. 24. Boston plans to have nine early voting sites with weekend and evening hours, while Springfield will extend its hours and hopes to have at least one weekend day, though such measures are still preliminary.

But while many have praised the new election law — similar to measures adopted by 36 other states nationwide — some town clerks are anticipating voter confusion and a hefty workload for their offices. It will also likely cost some municipalities that choose to open additional voting sites and extend their hours, though these costs will vary, said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. Several weeks ago, his office issued guidelines to help municipalities prepare for early elections.

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Last week, the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association held a well-attended workshop in Plymouth on preparing for early elections, part of a three-day conference replete with popcorn, raffles, and town clerk camaraderie. The workshop “took the fear out of the process,” said Laura Schwall, the town clerk for Rehoboth, but questions remain. How many additional staffers should town clerks enlist for early elections? How will towns clearly communicate election information to voters? Where will they get the money?

“It’s going to put a lot of undue pressure on our offices,” said Patricia Anderson, town clerk of Norwell. “We will have a lot of extra work.”

Several town clerks anticipate that early voting will yield a 25 to 30 percent increase in the number of voters who show up to the polls. And independent of early voting, this year will also see high voter turnout because of the presidential election.

“Rolling out early voting during a presidential election is kind of a recipe for trouble,” Wilmot said, noting that some other states had implemented early voting during smaller election years as a trial.

Early voting will affect only the November election, not the September primary.Lynn Doyle, the town clerk in Carver, said towns must carefully time their publicity of early voting, lest some voters think the new process applies to the primary.

“It’s still early, but in my mind there is one dilemma,” Doyle said. “There is a small window between the primary and the statewide election. Disseminating information too early could be confusing for voters in the primary.”

While the state will take on some costs — such as that required for special envelopes to distinguish the early voting ballots, Galvin said — some towns may need to pay staff for extra hours in additional locations and may need to use electronic poll books to ensure that people do not vote twice in two different locations.

Galvin said he attended the clerks’ meeting in Plymouth to learn about their concerns, and already he has begun thinking of tweaks to his preliminary guidelines, which will go before a public hearing in late July.

Early voting is appealing, Galvin said, because voters don’t need to offer a reason to participate.

Currently, residents can vote before election day only if they obtain an absentee ballot using one of three legal excuses: a physical disability that would prevent them from coming to their polling place, a religious belief that would deter them from voting on election day, or being absent from their town or city on election day.

But once you vote early, there’s no going back.

“You want to be very sure of your choices,” Galvin said. “If you are undecided, early voting is not for you.”

Meg Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.
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