EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 29, 2013

Editorial: Voter suppression, Lawrence style

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Whenever a “voter ID” law is proposed, opponents are quick to cry “Voter suppression!”

If people must produce a photo ID to prove they are eligible to vote, many — especially minorities — will be discouraged and turn away, the argument goes.

We don’t buy it.

But there is another form of voter suppression going on right here in Lawrence that has hurt the city’s majority Latino population and that no one seems to be doing anything about.

As Keith Eddings reported in the Sunday Eagle-Tribune, the city’s vintage voting booths have become so rickety over time that many are unusable.

How rickety? So rickety that Eddings witnessed a booth literally collapse under the pressure of a pen applied to a ballot during last year’s presidential election.

In a memo to the City Council, City Clerk William Maloney said Lawrence barely has enough voting booths to stage an election.

“Moreover, the existing booths will likely continue to deteriorate to a state of disrepair, resulting in a serious depletion of available voting booths,” Maloney added.

This sorry state of affairs could hamper the city’s ability to conduct the expected special election to replace secretary of state nominee and U.S. Senator John F. Kerry.

The September primary and November final elections, when the city will choose a mayor and other municipal officials, could also be affected, Eddings reported.

The decrepit voting booths have already been cited as a factor in the chaos surrounding presidential election voting in Lawrence last November.

City election officials said they were overwhelmed by the high turnout, though 54 percent is certainly no record for a presidential election.

But Daniel Rivera and other city councilors say the shortage of voting booths — and even pens (the incompetence runs deep in Lawrence) — contributed to the backup at the polls.

At one point during the day, 10 ramshackle booths were pulled from storage and pressed back into service.

Too little, too late.

At the Guilmette School, there were still 400 people in line to vote at 8 p.m. Some were so discouraged they left without voting.

Now that’s voter suppression.

It’s stunning, really, that a city with an annual budget that now stands at $246 million hasn’t thought to set aside a little money to replace a voting booth or two each year.

The 70-year-old booths date to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third term and the Lawrence mayoralty of James P. Meehan.

Perhaps the booths could be sold as antiques to help pay for new ones. Why not? The city has already tried to cheap it out by sending 150 to 175 of the booths to be repaired by county jail inmates, only to have them come back so shoddily rebuilt they had to be scrapped.

Lawrence needs as many as 150 new voting booths, each with four bays, according to Maloney.

They cost about $1,200 each, so the bottom line is $180,000.

Not a lot of money in a city that recently achieved national notoriety by spending $800,000 in federal money to hire “at risk” youths to do chores for the DPW. Several of the youths not only proved they were at risk themselves but put others at risk when they allegedly decided to expand their municipal mission to include armed robbery.

As always, the buck stops with the sitting chief executive, Mayor William Lantigua. But this problem has been building through many, many mayoral administrations. The incompetence not only runs deep, it also goes way back.

Secretary of State William Galvin, part of whose job is to oversee local elections, did not return a phone call, which seems to have become a habit with him.

Rivera lays much of the blame at the feet of Maloney.

“What we saw in the last election is that the clerk flies by the seat of his pants when planning these elections,” he said.

We believe many others share that blame.

But Rivera has it exactly right when he says that the growing confusion at the polls “casts a shadow across all of the election process.”

This is not new. Lawrence has a long history of troubled elections that brought the feds to town in the past. And the current problems go far beyond the rickety voting booths.

There are lingering questions about the integrity of the voter list and signature certification process, especially after a story by Eddings late last year on some apparently faked signatures on the nomination papers of a Lawrence candidate for state representative.

But the problem clearly has become intolerable when a shortage of voting booths threatens the people’s right to choose their leaders. And time is running short. The date has been set for the Kerry special election: June 25. If party primaries are needed, they will be April 30, little more than three months from now.

Where are the guardians of the voters’ rights?