City Council Holds Hearing on Early Voting in Municipal Elections

The City Council Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Councilor Michael Flaherty, held a hearing on Jan. 28, concerning a petition for a special law regarding an act authorizing the City of Boston to offer early voting in municipal elections. Flaherty said that if passed the hope would be to start this for the 2019 election. Support from the City Council members at the hearing was very positive.

“I want to make sure that Boston is leading on this,” said Councilor Josh Zakim. He spoke highly of the early voting that is currently offered for state and federal elections in Massachusetts, and said that adding municipal elections “is an opportunity to continue moving forward.”

“We see voter suppression in other parts of our country and it’s important that Boston be a leader on this front,” Councilor Kim Janey said. “It’s high time that we look at our city election.”

Councilor Ed Flynn said this was a civil rights issue in his opinion and he is interested in what kind of positive impact this early voting would have on veterans and those in the disability community.

Councilor Matt O’Malley said that “anything we can do to make it easier for folks to vote earlier is a step in the right direction.”

Election Department Commissioner Dion Irish said that 28,000 people took advantage of early voting for the 2018 election, and it was only the second time that the city held early voting.

“We are in support [of adding municipal elections],” Irish said, but he added that there were things he wanted to bring to the attention of the City Council.

He said that the municipal election cycle is more of a condensed cycle than other elections, and the preliminary election is later in September which leaves a shorter window, “but we can make necessary adjustments for that,” he said.  He also said that while the current proposal being put forth calls for it to be effective immediately upon passage, the Election Department would need at least six months to secure locations and make logistical arrangements for early voting for this year’s election.

To answer Councilor Flynn’s concerns about how this will impact people with disabilities, Irish said that they are constantly getting input and advice out to educate and inform people about the opportunities that are available to them. In addition, the department “make(s) sure all poll workers are understand how we can properly serve people with disabilities,” Irish said.

Irish said they are already securing polling places for the 2019 general election, and need to secure poll workers and identify training sites, among other logistical items. “If it was passed tomorrow, it would give us sufficient lead time to prepare,” Irish told the City Council.

Irish said that the early voting cost citywide for one election is $380,000, and closer to $400,000 if a central tabulation location is factored in, which is something the city wants to have. He said that city election ballots have to be printed by the city, while state and federal elections are printed by those governments. This raises the cost for the city slightly as they would have to foot the bill for printing and postage throughout the city.

When approaching siting for early voting, he said that they look at City Council districts and the different neighborhoods, then put together schedules that offer early voting location opportunities across the city. The locations also need to be ADA compliant, have parking, and be close to public transportation, Irish said. They also need to make “sure that we’re in every part of the city,” he added.

He said that they have learned a lot from the 2016 and 2018 elections that offered early voting, and a lot of the challenges they are trying to overcome are not visible to the public, but rather how the Election Department can make the elections more efficient and effective. Overall, he said that he thinks early voting in Boston has “worked well.”

Irish also said that they want new voting machines that would increase the capability to designate the central tabulation facility.

Councilor Janey asked what could be done to engage people in communities that had lower voter turnouts.

“We looked at which precincts did participate more in early voting,” Irish said. He said that a lot of people used early voting as a convenience so they did not have to wait in long lines on Election Day.

“The way we’ve always approached it is to make it as convenient as possible,” Irish said. He said it just provides more options for people.

Jonathan Cohn, Chair of the Issues Committee with Progressive Massachusetts, said that there is “no better way to strengthen our democracy than to increase access to voting,” said Jonathan Cohn, Chair of the Issues Committee with Progressive Massachusetts. “The benefits of early voting are clear,” he said, with shorter lines, improved poll worker performance, and increased voter satisfaction, to name a few.

Ian Kea, Policy Director for MassVOTE, said that Massachusetts is “being looked at continually as being the leader in modern-day elections. We are very much behind unfortunately but the city does have a good leadership role.” He said that it is up to the city to promote these ideas so that Boston can be helpful at the local and federal levels.

“We have dates set for 2019 voting,” Councilor Zakim said. “I want to make sure that we do have enough time to do this for this election. I want to be realistic and make sure you and folks in your department have time to get this set up.”

Councilor Matt O’Malley said that “the benefits of early voting are too many to list and we’ve seen twice now what a success it can be.” “The easier we make it for folks to vote, the more participation we will see,” he added. No one present at the hearing spoke in opposition of the proposal, and Councilor Flaherty ended the hearing by saying to the members of the Election Department, “I look forward to working with you as we move forward.”

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