By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The city is ill-prepared to conduct the upcoming special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by John Kerry, in part because a “well-intended” attempt to have county inmates repair up to 175 voting booths produced only a heap of “poorly constructed voting booths that simply were not durable,” according to City Clerk William Maloney.
“The current number of voting booths available and their age and condition is barely sufficient to conduct election events to occur in the near future,” Maloney told the City Council in a recent memo, referring to the special election for Kerry’s Senate seat that will be held later this year if the Senate confirms his nomination as Secretary of State.
“Moreover, the existing booths will likely continue to deteriorate to a state of disrepair, resulting in a serious depletion of available voting booths” for the primary in September and the general election in November, when the city will choose a mayor.
Maloney’s delivered the warning after Councilor Daniel Rivera asked him to explain the chaos at several polling places in the November presidential election, when poll workers were overwhelmed by the 54 percent turnout.
At one polling place in the Guilmette school, the line to the voting booths was about 400 people long at 8 p.m., causing several discouraged votes to leave without casting ballots. Approaching the front of the line, voter Darlysha Gonzalez said she and her mother had been waiting three hours, including an hour at the Rollins School that ended when they were told their voting place had been changed.
Rivera and other councilors alleged that other problems added to the overflow at the polls, including a shortage of voting booths and pens to mark ballots, untrained poll workers, poor coordination between city departments and inaccurate voter rolls.
Shortly after the election, Rivera sent Maloney a list of 16 questions about his planning for the Nov. 6 election, including how Maloney projected turnout, trained poll workers, supplied polling places and maintained voters lists. After receiving Maloney’s written response, Rivera summoned Maloney to the council’s budget committee last week for a meeting that lasted nearly three hours.
A few of the exchanges were testy, including when Rivera pressed Maloney about whether he calls the several city departments involved in elections, including police, public works and the schools, to joint meetings to coordinate their efforts. Maloney responded that separate meetings were more efficient.
“With my past experience in leadership positions, if you coordinate better, you have less problems,” Rivera said.
“I respectfully disagree,” Maloney responded. “I’ve been doing this for eight years and it really doesn’t change all that much. Coordinating the effort is really not the key as much as the function of having viable equipment and enough staff to man the polls.”
Maloney told the council the long lines on Nov. 6 were caused mostly by the high number of inactive voters - who are red-flagged on voting rolls because they have not returned their census cards or voted in four years – and was not due to understaffed polling places or poorly trained workers.
He said he hired 188 poll workers in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election, then hired 20 students from Northern Essex Community College on Nov. 5, after he determined turnout would be higher than expected. He said all but three of the 188 poll workers were trained, but said just four of the 20 college students were.
Maloney said he’s been frustrated in his effort to repair or replace the city’s stock of rickety, 70-year-old voting booths, which includes one used at the Partham School polling place on Nov. 6 that an Eagle-Tribune reporter saw collapse when a voter pressed his pen to it.
As the lines grew on election day, public works employees retrieved 10 dilapidated voting booths from storage, cobbled them together and delivered them to the polls.
Maloney said the city needs up to 150 additional voting booths, each with four stalls, at a cost of about $1,200 each. He said used voting booths are not available from manufacturers or from other municipalities. He said none of the 150 to 175 voting booths he sent to the Essex County House of Correction came back in a useful condition and that none is salvageable.
Rivera said he wasn’t satisfied.
“What we saw in the last election is that the clerk flies by the seat of his pants when planning these elections,” said Rivera, who chairs the budget committee, said after the meeting. He said the problems that arise as a result “cause people to feel like there’s an appearance of impropriety and casts a shadow across all of the election process.”
Maloney did not return a phone call Friday for further comment.
Sheriff Frank Cousins, who oversees the House of Corrections, and Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees local elections, also did not return phone calls.