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'We are clerks; we make it work': The increasingly stressful duties of local election officials

An old-fashioned crank-turn ballot box used in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.
Grace Bannasch
Courtesy Grace Bannasch
An old-fashioned crank-turn ballot box used in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.

During the first week of mail-in voting, my office received nine misdirected ballots from Northampton voters for every one we received from Shutesbury.

Either I drove 45 minutes across the Connecticut River to deliver these wandering ballots the day they arrived, or someone from the Northampton city clerk's office made the same journey in the opposite direction.

No matter what, these ballots got where they needed to be, so they could be counted.

As my colleagues like to say, "We are clerks; we make it work."

But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t exhausted, burned out and beaten down.

I was appointed assistant town clerk in my hometown in 2019, and elected to the office of town clerk in 2020. In my short three years of clerkdom, I've witnessed — and had to adapt to — a fundamental transformation in how Massachusetts elections operate. Everything from voter registration to vote-by-mail has been changed by the pandemic.

There are new risks in addition to these new responsibilities: earlier this year, the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association held an active shooter drill at an annual conference for the first time ever, to prepare town clerks for what is coming.

Town clerks are human beings. We cannot continue to keep doing more and more, with little and less. Sooner or later, we will go from “this is not sustainable” to “we are not sustaining this.”

Some town clerks have already reached that point. What's happening in Massachusetts is happening across the nation: Local election administrators are quitting at an unprecedented rate.

It’s not just the stress, it’s not just the long hours for months on end, it’s not just the expectation that town clerks will work overtime for free, not just the harassment, not just the death threats, not just the cybersecurity risks. It’s not just staying calm and carrying on when anything goes awry. It's all those things combined.

I've not yet reached my breaking point. I will keep carrying ballots over the river until I do. And if someday I need to cross that other bridge for my own safety or sanity, I hope there’s someone prepared to take my place.

Commentator Grace Bannasch is town clerk in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.

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