By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Hoping to avert the chaos that greeted voters at polling places on Nov. 6, the City Council is considering spending $100,000 to replace rickety voting booths and other dilapidated equipment in time for this year’s four elections.
Many of the 150 or so voting booths — including some that saw their first ballot when Franklin Roosevelt’s name was on it — failed to make it through the November presidential election, when several collapsed.
“The tables weren’t secured very well and, consequently, some of the tables just came out from under you,’’ City Clerk William Maloney, who oversees the city’s Election Division, said yesterday about the last election. “I don’t want to subject anyone to using those. It’s not right.”
In addition to 100 new voting booths, Maloney’s $100,000 plan would buy 72 tables where voters are checked in and out of polling places. Many of the tables also are close to collapse.
Councilor Daniel Rivera said Maloney’s request doesn’t go far enough to correct what’s wrong with voting in Lawrence. Rivera said he will oppose the request unless it also provides better training for poll workers.
“They can spend $100,00 on booths because there’s a need for that and I don’t want that to be an excuse as to why they run poor elections,’’ he said. “But at the same time, let’s make sure we’re doing some things differently than we did last time. Training was a part of (the problem). Let’s get the equipment we need, but I’ll vote no if we don’t get (the mandate for better training).’’
Dilapidated voting booths and u@text1:ntrained poll workers were two of the challenges voters faced on Nov. 6. Some polling places ran out of pens to mark ballots. At the Rollins School, up to 35 percent of voters who cast ballots 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. At the Guilmette School at 7 p.m., one hour before the polling place was scheduled to close, residents were in a long line, expecting to wait hours to vote.
Conditions at the polls add to the challenge of improving voter turnout in a city where it is chronically depressed. Nationwide, just under 58 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on Nov. 6. In Lawrence, the turnout was 55 percent.
“It makes a difference,’’ Cheryl Clayburn, executive director of MassVOTE, a Boston nonprofit that promotes voter registration in historically disenfranchised communities, said about faulty equipment. “Our focus is on eliminating long lines. That’s one piece of it – faulty equipment.’’
Each of the 100 new voting booths would contain four cubicles, would be circular rather than linear, and would be made of metal or plastic rather than wood. Twenty-seven would be low, making them wheelchair accessible. They would be paid for out of last year’s budget surplus, leaving $5 million in the reserve fund.
On Tuesday, the City Council scheduled a hearing for March 5 on Maloney’s request for the new voting equipment. The council also scheduled a second hearing for that night on Maloney’s request for another $140,000 to pay for the poll workers, police details and other expenses for the four elections the city will run this year.
The four elections are the primary and general election to fill the U.S. Senate seat John Kerry gave up to become secretary of state, scheduled for April 30 and June 25, and the preliminary and general election for mayor and city council that will be held Sept. 17 and Nov. 5.