Corrected and updated May 7, 2020. See editor's note below.
More than one expert has compared the lockdown of Massachusetts businesses and residents to an induced medical coma. This week, with eyes on upcoming June elections and Spring Town Meeting, Select Board members began planning for a reawakening of civic activity, shortening the hours polls will be open, encouraging mail-in ballots, and brainstorming possible venues for debate and passage of the town’s fiscal 2021 budget and other financial measures.
The June 2 special election to fill the seat vacated by former state Rep. Jennifer Benson in December, is the first of four elections on this year’s calendar. Massachusetts law requires that polling stations for the state election be open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. But polls for a town election need to be open for only four hours.
At its Tuesday night meeting, the Select Board accepted, without objection, Chair Alice von Loesecke’s proposal that polls for the June 23 Town Election open at 3 p.m. and remain open for five hours until 8 p.m. The new hours will allow time for working parents to get home and take turns casting their physical ballots, while lowering the exposure of election workers to potential COVID-19 infection.
Meantime, however, Town Clerk Marlene Kenney is encouraging voters to stay away from the polls altogether and cast mail-in or absentee ballots instead. Applications for either are available on the town website. A mail-in or absentee ballot for the special election may be submitted as late as June 1, as long as it arrives at the clerk’s office by noon that day. For step-by-step instructions, go to the town clerk’s website at https://bit.ly/2Wz4AIO.
Town Administrator Tim Bragan told the board that on election day, personal protection equipment will be provided to election workers and plexiglass barriers installed to protect them as they interact with voters. Voting booths will be arranged in the Bromfield cafeteria to ensure social distancing, and registration lines will be marked to separate voters from one another by 6 feet as they enter and leave. The number of voters allowed in the polling area will likely be limited to no more than 10, though no specific rules were set at Tuesday night’s meeting and the state has provided no guidance.
Similar procedures and hours will govern voting at Town Election on June 23, where voters will decide four ballot questions, including a $320,000 override, and choose candidates to fill eight seats on four town boards. To appear on the ballot, candidates must submit nomination papers to the town clerk’s office by May 14.
Choosing a location for this year’s June 20 Spring Town Meeting is more challenging. State law does not permit an open town meeting such as Harvard’s to be conducted virtually. And while Gov. Baker is expected to issue guidelines this month, none are available now, including the total number of attendees who will be allowed at one time in a large meeting room such as the Bromfield gym or in a collection of smaller classrooms.
At their meeting this week, Select Board members considered several options. The Bromfield gym is an obvious choice, Bragan said, but he had not yet calculated how many chairs, each separated by 6 feet, would fit. To accommodate an overflow, Bragan said he was evaluating how classrooms or the cafeteria might be used, each equipped with a computer and Smart Board to link attendees to the main meeting. But he said Cronin Auditorium should be ruled out given the difficulty of separating attendees as they make their way to and from seats.
Two less conventional options are also under consideration: the field in front of Bromfield School, where commencement is traditionally held, or even Fruitlands, a natural amphitheatre that seats hundreds for summer concerts. Bragan promised to investigate both and to report his findings to the board at its next meeting.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the polling hours for the June 2 special 37th district state election. Polls for that election will be open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. Polls for the June 23 Town Election, however, will be open for only 5 hours, from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m.