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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
Relying on everything from voting paddles in parking lots to repurposed technology, towns across the state are adapting amid the COVID-19 emergency to hold previously rescheduled elections and town meetings.
With the June 30 end of the fiscal year looming, communities are balancing public health needs against meeting budget and electoral deadlines set by the state. Many are turning to mail-in voting and virtual and outdoor meetings to keep their residents distanced but still engaged in the work of local government.
The state has taken several steps in recent months to ease the pressure on communities, including allowing towns to push elections into June and to use month-by-month (one-twelfth) budgets starting in July if they can’t hold town meetings by June 30. Additional legislation related to town meetings and elections is continuing to work through the legislative process. These measures could provide further options to delay municipal elections, reduce required quorums, and other options for cities and towns, but final legislation would need to be enacted in the coming days in order to provide meaningful assistance.
The MMA has been tracking the rescheduling of spring elections and town meetings during the public health emergency and will continue gathering data as towns refine their schedules.
Before the pandemic, 11 communities had scheduled their town meetings for March, 43 for April, 206 for May, and roughly two dozen for June. Since March, at least 230 towns have rescheduled their meetings, with at least 158 being rescheduled to a June date. Dozens of town meetings have already been rescheduled a second or third time.
An analysis also shows widespread rescheduling of municipal elections. Before the emergency, 21 towns had planned to hold their elections in March, 71 in April, 182 in May, and 19 in June. Since the shutdown, at least 247 communities have rescheduled their elections one or more times, with more than 200 rescheduling to June.
The numbers reflect the disruption caused to this year’s elections and town meetings, but interviews with local officials reveal the extent of work and creativity that communities have invested into redesigning their elections and town meetings.
Elections spread out
The month of May marked the slow return of municipal elections. In Sheffield, about 850 voters, or 36%, participated in the May 11 election, according to Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard. About 50% voted by mail or absentee ballot, and the other half voted at the Senior Center.
“Letters were sent to each voter outlining the voting options,” LaBombard said.
The town encouraged in-person voters to wear masks and to stand apart as indicated by markings on the floor, LaBombard said. Poll workers wore gloves, provided sanitizer, and cleaned pens and voting booths after each use.
In Sandwich, the town held two elections on May 19: its annual town election, and a special state election for an open Senate seat. Town Manager George “Bud” Dunham said the town held the elections simultaneously to prevent voters from having to come out twice. The town also encouraged people to participate from home.
“We really pushed hard locally to try to get as many people to vote by mail as possible,” Dunham said.
About 3,100 people, or 19.4% of the town’s 16,000 voters, cast ballots in the state Senate election, with roughly half participating by mail. About 15% voted in the town election, just one-third by mail.
Dunham said the town uses three schools as polling places. The town clerk, fire chief and the health director all participated in the planning. To prepare voters, the town clerk posted walk-throughs of the facilities on Facebook.
On election day, poll workers wore masks and remained behind Plexiglass to check in voters; made sanitizer available; distributed disposable golf pencils instead of reusable pens; and separated the entrances and exits. In addition, the town stationed two firefighters at each location to wipe down voting booths.
“The extra money that we paid to have the firefighters clean things – that made people feel safe,” Dunham said.
Sandwich had other employees fill in for regular poll workers who fell into higher-risk health categories. The town also administered rapid-result COVID-19 blood tests to poll workers, which reassured poll workers and employees.
In the future, Dunham said, the town would more aggressively cordon off the entrances and exits, and place larger markings on the floor to encourage distancing. Dunham, a longtime member of the MMA Board of Directors, said he hopes municipalities can work with the MMA and the state to streamline mail-in voting before the presidential election.
“Use any election you have between now and November as a test run, Dunham said. “Try to figure out what went well, and what you could do a little bit better.”
Town Meeting outdoors
Before the public health emergency, Auburn had planned to hold its representative Town Meeting on May 5 in an auditorium. Instead, it will move to the high school football field on June 2, with two possible rain dates also scheduled.
Town Manager Julie Jacobson sent a letter to the 120 Town Meeting members to explain the safety procedures, which include distanced seating on the field, the wearing of masks and gloves, Plexiglass at the check-in table, and 6-foot markings on the ground. Jacobson also sent a map of the location.
Members who can’t or don’t want to enter the field can stay parked in their cars, listening to the proceedings on loudspeakers or their car radios. To vote, members will hold paddles outside their cars, and counters will walk around to tally votes.
To expedite proceedings, the town has eliminated less time-sensitive warrant articles, as well as presentations by Jacobson and others. Instead, the town will include written versions of the presentations in members’ packets. It will also post written presentations on the town’s website, along with taped versions.
For a quorum, Auburn needs 80 of its 120 Town Meeting members to participate. The town has called members to gauge attendance, Jacobson said, and has at least 87 committed members. She said the option to sit in their cars has proved popular.
“Everyone we spoke to said they were very pleased with the measures we are taking,” Jacobson said.
Town meetings from afar
While some towns moved their meetings outdoors, others are taking a more remote approach. Starting June 1, Lexington will hold its representative Town Meeting virtually. Other communities, including Winchester and Brookline, also have remote town meetings planned this month.
“We’re treading new ground,” said Lexington Select Board Member Joe Pato.
He said the town needs to hold Town Meeting before June 30 rather than adopting monthly budgets based on fiscal 2020 spending. With a $250 million annual budget, Lexington would have quickly run into financial trouble, Pato said, given contractually obligated salary increases in fiscal 2021. He said the town also has time-sensitive warrant articles that need to be addressed.
“We believed it was going to be impractical, at best, to try to have an in-person meeting, even if the emergency order was lifted, because in our representative Town Meeting, our members skew older, and a larger proportion fell into the vulnerable classes,” Pato said.
As June 1 approaches, Lexington still doesn’t technically have the state’s authorization to meet virtually, given that legislation allowing for virtual representative town meetings (S. 2680/H. 4752) is not yet resolved in the Legislature.
As it awaited Beacon Hill action, Lexington prepared a special Town Meeting warrant article authorizing the town to petition the Legislature to have its Town Meeting results accepted by the state. It was also prepared to seek a court order if needed. Lexington had consulted with town counsel on the moves, Pato said, and took the steps to satisfy its bond counsel.
Technology presents another challenge.
“There’s nothing off the shelf to buy,” Pato said. “There’s neither a service nor a product that we could just use a turnkey solution for. So the time pressure was hard, to get something built and stable for Town Meeting.”
Town Meeting members will need to log in to three different places: the overall Town Meeting portal, the voting application, and Zoom. Option Technologies, which typically provides handheld voting devices for Lexington’s town meetings, will supply the voting app. Pato, a retired research computer scientist, created the Town Meeting portal. It took about six weeks to build this virtual process, he said.
Lexington has also conducted extensive training for its nearly 200 Town Meeting members, including sessions for each of its nine precincts, and a full-scale mock meeting for 200-plus attendees. It also offered one-on-one training for those who needed it.
Addressing the needs of members with varying technological skills has been challenging, Pato said. The training sessions helped pinpoint both common user error and technological issues, such as password problems and user interfaces that behaved differently depending on devices being used.
Residents can watch the proceedings via live streaming or on local cable, and submit comments for the meeting, but they can’t access the Zoom meeting itself. To prevent hacking or outside interference, the town created authenticated accounts for each Town Meeting member and mailed letters containing passwords, Pato said. Members will see their votes displayed in real time and see if there’s a problem.
IT staff will be available to help members during the meeting. Lexington has cross-trained staff so that each employee knows how to do multiple jobs. It has installed backup systems, created a separate setup in a town building and trained a deputy town moderator, in case the moderator falls ill.
“We’ve tried to build in redundancy for everything,” Pato said.