These are not your father and mother’s elections.

Even at the local level.

This was the first election cycle since COVID restrictions were relaxed, and the second cycle ever that Massachusetts allowed no-excuse mail-in voting in a statewide election, as well as early voting.

Huge numbers of voters chose the more convenient methods with exponentially more citizens choosing mail-in or early voting. In New Bedford, some 11.8% of the ballots were cast that way. That may sound like a lot until you know that some of the affluent towns on the Cape had upwards of 40% of the voters cast their ballots by mail or early.

The results have been positive in New Bedford.

Helped by a highly contentious sheriff’s race, and some interesting ballot questions, the city had a 32.5% voter turnout on Nov. 8, no doubt helped by the ease of voting via mail or in person before the actual Election Day. 

That turnout is not great in a comparative universe, but it is very good for a city that has struggled with turnouts in the 20-25% range in recent final elections and in the teens for primary ones.

Even so, some people don’t like the new system.

The Massachusetts Republican Party went all the way to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court last summer to try to stop no-excuse mail-in and early voting, but the seven-member SJC unanimously rejected its suit. It’s helpful to note that all seven of the justices were appointed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

But suspicion of voting in the state’s cities runs deep in the GOP. 

Election “observers” showed up at the New Bedford polls this year, where the overwhelming majority of voters are Democrats or independents who lean Democratic. These observers were people who were taking photos and evidently asking questions of some voters as they made their way into their voting stations. They were present at both the Wilks Library and Hathaway School polling locations. They had to be told by Election Commission Chair Manny DeBrito’s staff how far away they had to stand from voters (who understandably might be intimidated by this sort of thing).

There may have been election observers who showed up at South Coast suburban precincts, but it’s hard to imagine that they did. This sort of observation in recent years has been almost exclusively associated with the MAGA branch of the Republicans.

But the alarmism about the New Bedford election did not end there.

On Election Day, there was breathless social media and talk radio speculation that as many as six voting machines had broken down in the city, and that ballots had temporarily been placed on a chair in one precinct while a machine was unclogged of ballots.

Anyone who follows elections knows that there are some number of voting machines that malfunction in almost every election. But the conspiracy and incompetency boo-birds were out quickly in this year of conspiracies about all things elections.

DeBrito said that none of the New Bedford machines were broken, but rather just jammed because of an unusual circumstance of this year’s longer-than-usual state ballot, and then a second city ballot for the MBTA question. They combined to clog some of the machines for a short time. So twice as many ballots and longer ballots than usual were being fed into the machines.

Poll workers, who are all volunteers, have been told how to unclog the devices, DeBrito said, but sometimes Election Office runners have to be dispatched to remind them how to do it. He said that many of those running elections in New Bedford (like most places) are seniors who do not always quickly remember procedures.

New Bedford Elections workers and police with ballots at City Hall on election night. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

I called Ryan Lyons, the chair of the Board of Elections in Fall River, to see if he had any machines that clogged this year, and he did. But the city has “emergency bins” to collect those ballots, he said. Lyons also cited the extra city ballot as the culprit. (Fall River, like New Bedford, had the extra municipal ballot to determine whether the new passenger train to Boston can start next year.) 

DeBrito said New Bedford uses the same kind of machines as Fall River, and they also include emergency bins which are used in such cases. He said he did not know if any ballots were temporarily placed on a chair while the machines were unjammed, but he said he did not see it as a huge problem as polling stations are manned with both polling workers and a police officer who are monitoring everything; the runners were quickly dispatched to unclog the machines, he said. He said he finds it hard to believe someone could tamper with them.

The highest amount of second-guessing, however, about the New Bedford election arose after one earnest media personality noticed that in the results that DeBrito released on election night, the six wards did not add up to final totals.

That sounds like a legitimate concern.

The personality was not the first to notice it. The New Bedford Light noticed it on Election Night and attached an explanation of the discrepancy on its chart listing the results of the ballot questions.

The reason for the discrepancy in the numbers, DeBrito said, is that the computer programs that count votes in New Bedford and Fall River require a separate flash drive for the Election Day vote and the so-called “Advanced Deposit” vote (which consists of much of the Early Vote and Mail-in Vote). 

Now that each Massachusetts state election will include significant numbers of early votes and mail-in votes, extra columns need to be added to the election-result printouts for each of the city’s 41 precincts. DeBrito said he realized that ahead of time and had made arrangements to get extra flash drives to tabulate the Advanced Deposit. 

All the final tabulations of votes were correct on the printout DeBrito gave to the media on Election Night, but when he printed them out, the sheet did not include the columns for the early votes and mail-in votes in the individual precincts. Maybe DeBrito should have done a dry run ahead of time, but hindsight is easier than foresight.

Now, I’ve been covering elections for 40 years. I was there for the late-night years when a crush of reporters waited for hours as ballots were laboriously counted by hand. And I’ve been there for the last 20 or so years when most Massachusetts communities have used the most reliable voting machines to ever come down the ‘Pike. (Here’s a little-known fact, the Bay State’s commonly used laser-tech machines read the ballots electronically but also retain the original print copy of the ballot if needed for any reason).

Whether Manny DeBrito or former New Bedford elections Chair Maria Tomasia or Ryan Lyons in Fall River or Linda Fredette over in Fairhaven is gathering the results, the officials all know that the press wants the results on Election Night now, now, now! We’re a competitive, deadline-oriented business, after all.

I’ve never met the elections official yet who did not try to accommodate us the best they are able. But having said that, it’s easy for me to understand how DeBrito would hand out those results to the waiting press with the Advanced Deposit columns missing. He should have, of course, noted to us why they were missing and explained his confidence that the totals were correct.

“Like in society and elections and everything else, we’re so reactive instead of proactive,” DeBrito said in an interview later, noting that it was the first time the new system has been used this way. He said he does not think all this stuff gets thought out ahead of time by the state officials either.

He may be right.

Debra O’Malley, a spokesperson for Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, said that the mail-in and early voting procedures were essentially an unfunded mandate by the Legislature. The legislation established the new systems but did not give the cities and towns extra money to run them. 

Early voting and Mail-in voting can require extra public counting and cross-referencing of voters. The state required an audit of how much extra work and cost after the fact, O’Malley said, which the state will then in the future assist the cities and towns with. But the local municipalities need to step up too, she said, “We think cities and towns should be investing in elections employees,” she said.

Mayor Jon Mitchell had the Elections Office send a card encouraging New Bedford voters to vote. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Mayor Jon Mitchell acknowledged that the Elections Office clearly needs more help during elections season to deal with the new procedures. In an effort to increase voter participation in the city, he also had the office send out a printed card to registered voters encouraging them to vote. That added to the burden in New Bedford this year because the staff had to research which voters had not cast ballots.

Mitchell suggested that in the future, utility city employees might be used to help the office. 

Short-staffing is the case in a lot of municipal departments right now, the mayor said. He said that it’s a difficult time to be an election worker because of the conspiracies that have gained traction in the wake of former President Trump’s denial that he lost the 2020 election legitimately.

“They work hard and constantly strive to get better,” he said of the New Bedford office.

Both Fredette and Lyons told me they work closely with DeBrito and think he is doing a good job.

Fredette, who has five precincts to DeBrito’s 41, said she can’t imagine organizing the city’s vote count. She noted she had 16 votes that were postmarked by Election Day while New Bedford had 335. The town is one-fifth the size of the city. “You can’t really compare us to New Bedford,” Fredette said.

Lyons said his office had counted all its ballots on Election Night and they had to keep going until midnight. He wished he had opted for the Advanced Processing method chosen by DeBrito, he said. That system allowed New Bedford to count early votes and mail-in votes up until Nov. 4 and then count the rest of them three days after the Nov. 8 election. (Massachusetts law allows ballots that are postmarked as of Election Day to be accepted for three full business days after the election.

Lyons, Fredette and DeBrito all said the new procedures have resulted in a grueling schedule for elections workers in the weeks around both the primary and final elections. There simply are many more procedures and cross-checking to do. And a special public counting session has to be scheduled to count the Advanced Deposit votes as well as the votes that arrive after Election Day.

The officials prop each other up about the new burdens, they said.

“Manny and I talk about this like a broken record,” said Lyons. 

Officials with Elections, Systems and Software (E,S and S), the company that supplies New Bedford’s software, did not return The New Bedford Light’s phone calls. I wanted to ask them why an easy-to-run program could not be written that makes a graph with the same-day vote and the early and mail-in vote at the same time.

Email columnist Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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