South Shore towns with local elections set for April and May have moved quickly to reschedule them due to the coronavirus pandemic, taking advantage of a move by Massachusetts lawmakers to grant municipalities the ability to postpone the democratic process in the interest of public health and safety.
Since the legislation was passed in late March, every South Shore town with an election on the calendar has opted to postpone. A majority have settled on dates in June.
One of the major components of the legislation is the ability for voters to cast their ballot early by mail — a move the state is allowing for all eligible residents for the first time.
Rep. Kathy LaNatra, D-Kingston, said prior to the new legislation that she’d heard major concerns from town clerks and local governments about looming election dates, the majority of which revolved around public health being in jeopardy.
“The majority of our voters, our local voters, are people that are older,” she said. “They are mostly at risk, so there was robust discussion about this. I’m happy that this legislation enables us to protect the public health while still preserving our elections. We need to still continue that process.”
More than a week ago, Wisconsin went ahead with its primary election after the state’s Supreme Court blocked Gov. Tony Evers’ executive order suspending in-person voting. Images of voters wearing masks and standing within feet of each other in long lines circulated across the internet.
“That’s crazy to me,” Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth, said.
O’Connor said he cherishes democracy, but in the midst of a public health crisis, no large gatherings should take place, particularly when the lives of vulnerable populations are at stake.
“I think that the local communities really need guidance from the state when it comes to how to approach elections given the current circumstances and challenges,” he said. “Delaying every part of the election process is appropriate.”
The Marshfield Board of Selectmen voted on March 30 to postpone the town’s election from May 2 to May 30 – only one day before Gov. Charlie Baker extended the stay-at-home advisory to May 4, said Town Clerk Narice Casper. The new date marks the earliest local election to take place on the South Shore.
Casper said she has concerns about whether it will be safe to hold the election in May. She is the only person working in the office at the moment, Casper said, because she does not want to take the risk of any of her employees falling ill.
“Even with the early voting that they’re allowing, I still have to get a request from the voter, I have to mail out that ballot, I have to bring it back,” Casper said. “I’d have to process it anyway. Unless I got all 20,000 of my voters to return their ballots, I’d have to have a live election.”
For weeks now, Casper said she has been racking her mind over what the best practices proceeding may be – from the effectiveness of scanning ballots with ultraviolet light to cleaning off every pen with a disinfecting wipe to providing polling staff with protective gear.
“I have grave concerns about asking people to work during an election,” Casper said. “I wanted this job. I love this job. I want to do the best that I can by my people, and right now I’m betwixt and between.”
Plymouth Town Clerk Laurence Pizer expressed similar apprehensions. The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday voted to postpone the municipal election from May 16 to June 20.
“It really is a health and safety matter,” he said, adding that the majority of the work his staff is required to do can only be accomplished at Town Hall, which is closed until May 4.
An additional unease on Pizer’s mind is the upcoming state special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Republican Sen. Vinny M. deMacedo in the Plymouth and Barnstable District. That election is scheduled to take place on May 19.
“We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re interested in exposing our poll workers to the general public a week and a half after the state emergency is lifted,” he said. “There’s just no way we can be ready for that one either.”
LaNatra said there is a chance that town boards may be able to postpone elections past the end of June.
“I don’t know where this curve is going to go,” she said. “That possibly may be extended again depending on how things go.”
Town election dates
Marshfield — May 30
Milton — June 9
Scituate — June 13
Plymouth — June 20
Pembroke — June 20
Abington — June 23
Hanover — June 27
Cohasset — June 27
Norwell — June 27
Hull — TBD
Rockland — TBD
Braintree — TBD
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