HAVERHILL — Some residents who were sent mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 presidential election also received a letter erroneously listing Sept. 1 as the deadline for returning the ballots.
Fearing those residents may be confused by the error and therefore not fill out their ballots, the city clerk's office said it wants to alert the public to the problem. The clerk's office said the ballots can be received by election officials as late as Nov. 6 to be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3.
City Clerk Linda Koutoulas said the error affected as many as 200 voters, although she did not have an exact count.
Koutoulas said the error happened when temporary election workers were using mail-in ballot materials left over from the Sept. 1 primary to assemble packets for the Nov. 3 election. Those packets are mailed to voters who request mail-in ballots. The packets for both elections contain the same materials, except for the ballot and letter of instructions that lists the deadline for returning the ballots. In some cases, the workers assembled packets containing the correct ballot but the wrong instruction letter — the one from the primary listing the Sept. 1 deadline, Koutoulas said.
She said the correct letter of instructions mailed to the vast majority of voters in Haverhill notes that ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and be received by Nov. 6 in order to be counted.
Koutoulas said the error was brought to her attention Monday when several voters who received the letter listing the wrong deadline date called the city clerk's office to report it.
"We worked so hard to get the ballots out on time that we failed to notice some of them had the wrong informational letter," Koutoulas said. "It was an oversight and ultimately I take responsibility and I'm not blaming anyone."
Koutoulas said the city has about 46,000 registered voters. Of those, about 12,000 requested mail-in ballots, she said. About 500 other voters requested absentee ballots, she said.
If any voters who saw the erroneous Sept. 1 deadline tossed out their ballots thinking it was too late to submit them, Koutoulas suggested they call her office and new ballots will be sent out.
Debra O'Malley, spokeswoman for Secretary of State William Galvin, said her office received several phone calls this week from Haverhill voters asking about the Sept. 1 deadline noted in the ballot packages they received in the mail. O'Malley said her office spoke to Haverhill election officials and advised them to notify the public about the error in various ways.
"Since they don't know who received those instructions, we've asked them to clarify things for voters," O'Malley said. "We did talk to them about using every means to notify voters, including local newspapers, social media, signage and reverse 911 calls.''
Koutoulas said a notice to voters was posted Wednesday morning on the city clerk's website, and that she spoke to Mayor James Fiorentini about other ways of alerting voters to the error. Finding the notice of the error requires visiting the city's website, cityofhaverhill.com, and then taking several steps —clicking on the link to "Departments," then clicking on "City Clerk" and finally scrolling down the page to find the notice. There is nothing on the website's main page regarding the notice or election information of any kind.
Fiorentini said he planned to post an easier-to-find notice on the website's main page by Thursday.
"If the Secretary of State recommends a robo call, we will do one," he said as an additional way to notify voters of the incorrect information about the mail-in ballot deadline.
A robo call, or reverse 911 phone call, is commonly used by the city to contact all homes to alert residents about emergencies such as major storms.
Fiorentini said he apologizes for the error and that he has complete confidence in the staff at the city clerk’s office.
"They handled mail-in voting in the primary just fine and I have no concerns about the finals," he said of the presidential election.
Wendy Sibley is one of the Haverhill residents who received mail-in ballot packages with the incorrect date to return her ballot. She said she contacted the city clerk's office to ask why the Sept. 1 deadline was listed.
"They told me it was an error and read the correct instructions to me," Sibley said. "I'm advocating for people who are potentially disenfranchised because they think they can't use the mail-in ballot and don't go any further with it, while some may have thrown their ballots away. There is a population of people who fear going out in public at this time and those who do not have transportation to the polls. It's the right thing to do to let people know they can still mail in their ballots and have them counted. Everyone's vote should count and count equally, whether it's one or 200 people.''
Koutoulas said voters can also cast their ballots during early in-person voting, which takes place Oct. 17 to Oct. 30. Voters who have not returned their mail-in ballots by Nov. 3 can vote at their regular polling place that day, which is Election Day.
Mail-in ballots that are filled out before Election Day can be deposited in a box in the lobby of the police station or in either of two secure boxes located outside of City Hall. Koutoulas said she empties those boxes four or fives times a day and that each box is in a well-lit area with security cameras pointed at them.