LAWRENCE — A fired-up electorate met an ill-prepared and overwhelmed city on Tuesday, prompting one city councilor to call for an investigation into the hours-long delay and equipment shortages at polling places that he said caused several frustrated voters to walk out.
“The City Clerk was not prepared and planned poorly,” City Councilor Daniel Rivera said about William Maloney, who supervises the three Election Division employees and hires and trains hundreds of poll workers. “When voting locations are running out of pens at 10 in the morning... I think the City Clerk is over his capacity and is unable to handle some of the requests he’s got on the ground.”
Rivera said he responded to the shortage of pens to mark ballots by scouring shelves at Staples and CVS, where he said he bought about 50 pens and distributed them to polling places at two schools, a senior housing complex and a city library.
Other city councilors and an election warden said other problems added to the overflow at the polls, alleging that untrained poll workers mishandled voters, active voters were missing from the rolls, too few polling booths were available and even that voters were left in the dark when the lights went off outside one polling place
The pre-programmed exterior lights went off at the Frost School at about 5 p.m., according to Councilor Eileen Bernal. She said two poll workers responded by pointing their cars to the building and turning on their headlights until a custodian could respond.
In another instance at the Partham School, an Eagle-Tribune reporter saw the desktop of a wooden booth collapse when a voter pressed his pen to it.
By mid-day, public works employees were scavenging for more booths.
“We assembled some from broken booths, enough to cobble together 10,” DPW Commissioner John Isensee said about the pieces of voting booths that were found in the basement of a school. “Some went to (polling places) at Mary Immaculate (senior housing complex). Some to South Lawrence East (elementary and middle schools). Some went to Valebrook (apartments).”
Maloney said similar problems occurred in other municipalities facing heavy turnouts across the commonwealth, but would not comment on his response in Lawrence, where 55 percent of the city’s 40,570 voters cast ballots.
Maloney was asked four times if all the poll workers who worked Tuesday had been trained. Each time, he responded only: “unexpected and unprecedented,” referring to the turnout.
Complaints about the city’s preparation for Tuesday’s turnout followed other allegations earlier this week that the Election Division’s senior employee Rafael Tejeda faked at least four signatures on nominating petitions for City Council President Frank Moran and then certified the signatures were valid. Moran was elected to the Statehouse Tuesday.
Secretary of State William Galvin said he will investigate the allegations against Tejeda, which The Eagle-Tribune alleged in a story Sunday after consulting with a forensic handwriting expert.
On Monday, Mayor William Lantigua rejected suggestions from Maloney and city Personnel Director Frank Bonet that he relieve Tejeda, of his Election Day duties. Lantigua kept Tejeda on the job Tuesday and has declined to comment publicly on the allegations.
Lantigua visited at least one polling place Tuesday following the complaints about long lines. He spoke to several voters, but again declined to be interviewed.
Darlysha Gonzalez, who waited two hours to vote at the Partham School with her mother, said Lantigua promised her he would investigate the cause of the delays.
“A lot of people are leaving and not voting,” Darlysha Gonzalez said as she and her mother approached the end of the line at the Partham School at 8 p.m., when it was about 400 people long. In all, she said she and her mother waited three hours to vote, including an hour at the Rollins School that ended when they were told their voting place had been changed.
City councilors, police and poll workers offered varied explanations for the lines at Lawrence’s polling places.
“I’ve done this for almost 20 years — this is the heaviest I’ve seen. Turnout is incredible,” said Lt. Shawn Cohen, who oversees police officers assigned to the city’s 24 polling places. He blamed the delay on the heightened interest in an election that included close contests for president and for U.S. Senator in Massachusetts.
“Human error in the Election Division,” said Bill Collins, warden at the Rollins School. He said up to 35 percent of the voters who cast ballots at his polling place were listed as inactive, including many who protested that they had returned the census cards the city mails out to verify voters live where they say.
“That means additional work,” Collins said. “Affidavits need to be signed. Proof of residence has to be established. It takes five times more time to process.
“There’s some link that’s missing,” Collins said. “The process needs a real overhaul.”
Councilor Rivera suggested that the part of the process that functioned best Tuesday was the voters.
“I saw people leave in frustration in A4,” Rivera said, referring to the district where people vote at the former Storrow School. “But a lot of people stayed and worked through it.”