Athol Town Clerk scales back voting hours

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2020 1:50:10 PM
Modified: 6/4/2020 1:50:00 PM

ATHOL — Voters will have a much narrower window of opportunity for casting a ballot in this year’s annual town elections, currently scheduled for June 22. The Selectboard voted Tuesday night to abide by Town Clerk Nancy Burnham’s recommendation that voting hours be significantly scaled back in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of an expected low voter turnout.

“There are no contests on the ballot at all,” said Burnham. “There is a ballot question, and any ballot question is important. And, obviously, due to the COVID and everything that’s going on, we’re requesting that hours be reduced. We are required by law only to be open for a minimum of four hours. So, my recommendation to the board would be that we open at noon, which is the latest we could possibly open, and close at four o’clock.

“We have,” she continued, “incurred some other expenses because we’ve had to buy sanitation stuff. I’ve been working with the Board of Health on how we’re going to deal with the voters coming in, as well as the safety of the workers.”

Burnham pointed out that safety measures aren’t her only concern.

“Another concern I also have,” said the Town Clerk, “is that I have reached out to all of my workers and about half of them are not willing to work. So, another reason to be able to reduce hours is that I need to have experienced workers able to process the tallying of the votes.”

“Is there any possibility of doing split hours?” asked board Chair Rebecca Bialecki. “I know there are no contest this year — I understand that completely — but I don’t want to deny anyone the ability to vote, and 12 to four really eliminates anyone who works during the day.”

“First, to answer your question, no,” replied Burnham, “they have to be consecutive hours. Second of all, yes, I do understand that and we have thought about going a little bit later in the evening. The state does allow no-excuse early voting by mail, so people, if they are working, could apply for an early ballot. There is absentee, but you have to meet one of the criteria to vote absentee.

“We want people to come to the polls. I want people to vote. But it’s our job to make sure it’s a safe atmosphere for both the voter and the worker.”

In response to another question from Bialecki, Burnham did confirm that anyone who is unable to make it to the polls on the day of the election due to their work hours would qualify for an absentee ballot. Because absentee votes are cast by mail, anyone wishing to vote absentee should apply for a ballot as soon as possible.

“We already have about 50 people who have applied for absentee ballots,” Burnham added.

In addition to reducing voting hours, it was also decided that polling would be moved from Memorial Hall, which is on the first floor of Town Hall, to Liberty Hall, which is at ground level, the location of the building’s handicap entrance.

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