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Sudbury town clerks describe dealing with pandemic elections

Sudbury's town clerk and assistant town clerk recently explained the process to the Sudbury League.

Coping with record voter turnout for a presidential election in the middle of a pandemic presented unprecedented challenges, explained Sudbury’s town clerk and assistant town clerk in a meeting with the League of Women Voters of Sudbury.

The League honored Beth Klein, town clerk; Rose Miranda, assistant town clerk; their staff and the election workers and volunteers as “election heroes,” for their efforts coping with the town election, rescheduled from March to June; the state primary in September, and the general election Nov. 3, along with the annual town meeting, rescheduled to Sept. 12 and held outside.

The November election saw a record 89.73% turnout of Sudbury registered voters, with 12,487 ballots cast. Miranda noted that 8,260 of those votes were by mail — 7,383 by mail-in ballots and 877 by absentee ballot. Voting early in person were 3,076 voters, while 1,161 voted in person on Election Day itself.

“We had to do so much differently and for the first time this election,” said Klein. “It was a group effort. We couldn’t have done it without the office staff, the election workers and the support of town employees.”

Klein expects the 2021 town election to be held as scheduled March 29, using many of the procedures and safeguards put in place for the fall elections.

“Mail-in voting is here to stay,” Klein said. “People love it and it does increase voting turnout. The question now is how we make it more efficient and secure.”

She called on the legislature to revise the law that created temporary voting measures to deal with the pandemic to improve the process based on the experience of this fall’s elections.

State Sen. Michael Barrett, who attended the presentation along with Sen. Jamie Eldridge, said he was noting their suggestions, and added that “the human beings, state and local elections officials in particular, saved us in this election. They gave democracy its human face.”

The first concern, starting with the June town election, was whether there would be enough personal protective equipment and how to set up polling places to keep everyone safe, Klein said.

Once the state sent mail ballot applications to all registered voters in July, the challenge shifted to handling all those applications, she said.

“We got thousands of applications that had to be entered into the state computer and then we had to mail out the ballots,” said Miranda. With 12 different ballots depending on precinct, the staff had to make sure voters got the right one. Information on when ballots were sent and then received back was entered in the state computer, enabling voters to use a state website to track the status of their ballot.

But with the mail-in ballots “there were so many questions” because people were unfamiliar with the process, said Klein. “We were getting 25 emails a day and the phones were ringing off the hook,” even though the information was posted on the town clerk’s website.

Going forward, Klein would like to see only one format for mail ballots and more streamlining in the process. The online portal voters can use to request a mail ballot needs to be revised so the information voters enter goes directly into the system. This time, town election officials had to manually enter the information received from that portal, sort out duplicate requests, and find the voter’s signature card to match to the application.

The legislature expanded early voting in person before the primary and general elections as a way to reduce crowds on Election Day. Klein indicated the early voting period may not need to be as long once the pandemic is past and as people become used to the option to vote by mail.

“For the primary, early voting was underutilized,” Klein said, with a weekend available for the first time, but only 20 voters on Saturday and 15 on Sunday. For the November election, with two weekends available, the biggest early voting turnout was the Friday before the election, the last day for early voting.

Processing the large number of mailed ballots “was crazy. We used every available inch of Town Hall,” said Miranda. Barbara and Howard Goldsmith coordinated that effort, noting “we had to touch thousands of ballots numerous times” to sort them, stuff envelopes, affix return address labels, then open the returned ballots and scan them as received so voters could track their ballots.

“We were working 10 to 12 hours a day and on weekends. We need to make that process more efficient,” Klein said.

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