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Shift to voting machines

Hand-crank gear too slow, past repair

With more than 12,000 registered voters, Hudson is by far the largest community in Massachusetts to count its results by hand each election night. That will soon change.

The town’s capital plan for next fiscal year, approved by Town Meeting early this month, includes spending $56,000 to purchase eight electronic voting machines, one for each of Hudson’s seven precincts and one backup.

For at least the last 15 years, town officials have mulled switching from hand-crank ballot boxes, which require a crew of vote counters each election night to tabulate the paper ballots. But they’ve been reluctant to switch from a system they know works to one they are not familiar with, according to Town Clerk Joan Wordell.


“We’re going to miss it. Tradition, you know?” she said. “What I won’t miss is at 8 o’clock when everyone has to start counting and then people start asking, ‘What time do you think the results will be in?’ ”

On the busiest election nights, such as the presidential election in 2012, the town had to hire about 20 people to help count ballots, and it sometimes can take until 2 a.m. for the results to be tallied, Wordell said.

For this spring’s town election on Monday, which drew 20 percent of the town’s 12,713 registered voters, according to a posting by the clerk’s office, the results weren’t available until 11 p.m.

“Our population keeps growing and the number of people voting has increased, results are taking longer to count,” she said. “By switching to a tabulator, we should get our results a lot earlier.”

But a faster result is only part of the reason the town will finally make the switch. The hand-crank ballot boxes, purchased in 1973 for $295 each, are a challenge to repair and impossible to replace, Wordell said. Larkin Lumber, a local hardware and construction supply store, used to be able to repair the boxes, but the company closed last year. And their manufacturer is also no longer in business, Wordell said.


“When they don’t work, it’s not like we can just bring them to anybody,” she said.

Wordell said Hudson will have the new machines ready for town elections next May, and possibly in time for this November’s election.

Once Hudson makes the switch, Montague, a Western Massachusetts town with 5,731 registered voters, will take over the distinction as the biggest community to hand-count ballots, according to Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office.

In all, 71 towns in Massachusetts, primarily smaller, rural communities, count ballots by hand, McNiff said. The state certifies voting machines, but it does not tell communities how they should tally votes, McNiff said.

“It’s strictly a local decision,” he said.

The process will remain similar in Hudson, with voters using a pencil to mark their choices on a paper ballot. The town will have workers stationed at the polls to answer questions from voters, Wordell said.

“Some people in town are worried,” she said. “If they’ve always lived in Hudson, they’ve never voted any other way.”

Selectman Fred Lucy said he understands the reasoning for the change, but he would have been OK with continuing to count ballots by hand.

“I imagine if you were at a gathering on election night, you might wish it could have been reported earlier,” Lucy said. “But it works; think about the various problems around the country the last 15 years. Remember the hanging chads?”


Selectman Joseph Durant, who serves as the board’s chairman, said the community had been slow in making the change partly because of controversies and uncertainty surrounding other methods of casting ballots and counting votes, but also because the town’s hand-counting system worked so reliably.

“The voting process is sacred, this is the way it has been done forever,” he said. “We’re a little slow to change. It’s always been accurate, but the need to move forward has arrived. I guess it’s time for us to jump into the 21st century.”

Jarret Bencks can be reached at bencks.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @JarretBencks.