State investigating Boston’s election night violations
It’s been some week for the City of Boston’s Elections Department.
From the time the polls opened at 7 a.m. for last Tuesday’s election, polling places across the city saw voters coming out in droves to perform their civic duty.
“I can tell you already, at 7:55 in the morning, that it’s a much better turnout here this year than last year,” said Judi, a poll worker at Jackson/Mann Elementary School in Allston. “And I think it’s going to be a much better turnout overall, too.”
Judi wasn’t alone. Many predicted increased turnout for this year’s gubernatorial election, particularly in predominantly minority districts energized by the grassroots campaign of African American Democratic candidate, and eventual winner, Deval Patrick.
Unfortunately for many afternoon and evening voters, however, the city’s Elections Department didn’t share that optimism.
The high levels of voter turnout led to polling places in roughly 30 precincts throughout the city running out of ballots, forcing many angry people to wait in long lines to cast their votes and leading some others to leave without voting.
Massachusetts General Law requires “one set of ballots, not less than one for each registered voter, [to] be provided for each polling place at which a state, city or town election is to be held.”
But in the aftermath of the election night breakdown, Mayor Thomas M. Menino acknowledged that the city’s Election Department has in recent years adhered to a policy of distributing to precincts only half as many ballots as there are registered voters — in essence, assuming that turnout will not eclipse 50 percent.
“The city has a ballot for each registered voter, but turnout has never been 100 percent. Therefore, we provide each polling location with 50 percent, [and] then replenish throughout the day,” said Jennifer Mehigan, Menino’s press assistant.
Reports vary on the exact number of precincts that ran out of ballots beginning at approximately 5:45 p.m. on election night — Menino told reporters that the city has been made aware of at least 27, while the Boston Globe reported last Thursday a tally of 32, based on accounts from voters, elected officials and campaign volunteers in the Roxbury, Hyde Park, Dorchester, Mattapan and East Boston neighborhoods.
“It was a good Election Day for us until about a quarter of 6,” Menino told reporters.
Things went downhill from there.
Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and Charles Walker Jr., executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, called Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office on election night to find out how this could happen and what was being done to remedy the problem.
“We were treated with nonchalance and simply told that the state police were delivering ballots to some areas,” Ogletree said at the time.
Mehigan said that the city gave polling places additional ballots throughout the course of the day. But when voters rushed to the polls after work, the need for more ballots increased significantly.
Unfortunately, so did traffic on city stree ts, which Mehigan said led to delayed delivery by Election Department vehicles. At 6:30 p.m., Galvin told Menino to send ballots in police cruisers to polling places where ballots ran low.
At that time, according to Walker, ballots had run out at Boston Latin Academy. By the time polls closed at 8 p.m., no ballots had been delivered. While voters were encouraged to wait because anyone in line when the polls closed was still allowed to vote, Walker reported that over 100 people left the Boston Latin polling place, frustrated after waiting more than two hours with no ballots.
“This is a disgrace to allow a multitude of precincts to run out of ballots,” Walker said last Tuesday. “The Mayor’s Office told us before the election that there was no need to have attorneys at the polls, that this would be an error-free election.”
The ballot shortage is just the most recent in a string of embarrassments for the city’s Elections Department.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the city in July 2005, alleging that Boston’s election practices discriminated against Hispanic and Asian voters. The suit claimed that the city did not provide enough interpreters or multilingual materials at some polling places, and that some election workers attempted to coerce voters to make certain choices. The department dropped the lawsuit later that year, when city officials agreed to provide voting materials in Chinese and Vietnamese and to allow federal observers to monitor polling places through 2008.
And after September’s Democratic primary, the city was forced to conduct a public recount in the Second Suffolk District Senate race that pitted incumbent Democratic Sen. Dianne Wilkerson against challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz after workers realized that nearly 3,000 votes from eight of the district’s 73 precincts had not been properly tallied.
While those mishaps called the competency of the city’s elections department into question, it seems that for Galvin, last week’s debacle was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
To ensure that future elections don’t suffer from the same problems, Galvin announced last Wednesday that his office would take control of the city’s election operations, citing “repeated misconduct” on the part of Boston’s election officials and the need to have more experienced personnel in charge. Two days later, he said he planned to launch a full investigation into the department’s policies and procedures, calling the failure of city officials “violative of the most fundamental principles of our democratic process.”
“I can’t have ‘We’ll try to do better next time.’ That’s not acceptable,” Galvin said last Wednesday. “What they did [last Tuesday] was put the rights of voters at risk and that’s unacceptable.”
It is not yet known how Galvin plans to manage the takeover, nor how long the state will control the department or what the city has to do to regain control. His spokesman McNiff said Tuesday that the specifics of the investigation — whom the Secretary will appoint to conduct it, when the city will be notified of the investigator’s identity, or any changes in departmental operations resulting from it — have yet to be decided.
Mehigan said that the city is fully cooperating with the Secretary of State, and that Menino will hire an outside consultant to look at the Elections Department and determine where improvements can be made in terms of management and communication.
Vidya Rao and Yawu Miller contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.