Clerks apply lessons learned in 2016 in anticipation of heavy turnout.
HYANNIS — The state will again offer early voting for the coming midterm elections, and town clerks across Cape Cod are preparing and bracing for an expected heavy turnout.
“It’s the new norm when it comes to biennial elections,” Sandwich Town Clerk Taylor White said.
Early voting made its successful debut in the Bay State in 2016, a presidential election year.
“I think it’s a convenience for voters,” Barnstable Town Clerk Ann Quirk said. “If it helps get people out to vote, I’m all for it, because their vote is their voice.”
Nearly 50,000 people — or 30 percent of registered voters on Cape Cod — cast ballots before Election Day two years ago.
The early voting period this year will run from Oct. 22 to Nov. 2, but the deadline to register to vote is Wednesday.
Registered voters will be able to cast votes during regular business hours at local town halls, many of which will offer extended weekday hours and open Oct. 27, a Saturday, for early voting.
Several local election officials predict the early voter turnout will be on par with or higher than what it was in 2016, even though there is no presidential election.
“I think it will be higher,” said Dennis Town Clerk Teresa Bunce, who will set up several voting booths in a conference room at Town Hall, giving the space the appearance of a typical precinct polling place. “People appreciated the experience in 2016, while others are saying, ‘I’m going to do it this time.’”
White and Quirk, who also have seen an uptick in the number of absentee ballot requests, are forecasting a total turnout — including Election Day — at or near 70 percent, which is higher than normal for a midterm election.
“People are very interested in this election,” Bunce said.
Now that the state has gone through the early voting process once, town clerks have identified issues and problems from 2016 and made adjustments for this year’s election cycle.
“It was an absolute administrative nightmare in 2016,” White said.
Quirk agreed, also using the word “nightmare” to describe the process.
“I didn’t realize how big the administrative task was,” Bunce said.
The early voting process involves several steps. It starts with voters filling out a one-page form and signing it. They are then presented with a ballot to be filled out on the town hall premises. After voting, they put the ballot in an envelope, seal it, and are checked out by a poll worker. Finally, the information they provided on the initial form must be entered into a central voter registry database.
The sealed ballots must be safely stored in vaults, as they may not be opened and counted until Election Day on Nov. 6.
In 2016, Barnstable voters cast their early votes on the third floor of Town Hall, two stories above the town clerk’s office.
Quirk will not do that again.
Data from the early voter form, which had to be entered into a database downstairs at the town clerk’s office, was not very efficient, often requiring workers to stay as late as 10 p.m. to complete the task. It was even more of an issue when early voting was held on the weekend across town at the Barnstable Police Department.
This year, the entire process will take place in the town clerk’s office, with data being input immediately, even before the early voter receives a ballot.
“I’m going to maintain the town clerk’s office as our polling location,” said Quirk, who plans to install voting booths in the first-floor hallway at Barnstable Town Hall. “We have better control and there’s less overtime costs for taxpayers.”
Bunce and White will streamline the process by using an iPad-based technology called “Poll Pads” that electronically check in voters through a quick search using only a few letters of a person’s last name. The data then print out a label to be affixed to the ballot envelope, and the information is automatically entered into the central voter database. The device also reads bar codes on driver’s licenses to make the process even faster.
The tabulation process for early voting ballots is cumbersome, according to White, an advocate for having the state change the process to allow tabulation throughout the early voting period to “complete the transaction.”
That will not happen this time around.
Currently, ballots — often many thousands — are processed on Election Day in town halls or at precinct locations, a time-consuming exercise that requires extra staff and voting machines.
Early voting can be an expensive proposition.
The extra voting days and extended hours require staff to work overtime, extra equipment and setup and tear-down work, which translate into extra costs, or unfunded mandates, for municipalities.
To ease the burden of early voting costs, the secretary of state’s office is offering grants. To be eligible, a city or town must be open a minimum number of hours Oct. 27 or Oct. 28, a weekend.
The grants range from $400 to $2,800, depending upon the number of registered voters in a municipality.
— Follow Geoff Spillane on Twitter: @GSpillaneCCT.