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Clerks Focus On Safety, Staffing Ahead Of Special Election

The polling place at Falcetti Towers in Holyoke, Mass.
File photo / Sam Hudzik
The polling place at Falcetti Towers in Holyoke, Mass.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, a special election for a state Senate seat covering 11 western Massachusetts communities will be held next week. Democratic State Rep. John Velis and businessman John Cain, a Republican, are on the ballot.

The Second Hampden and Hampshire seat opened up when Don Humason resigned to become Westfield's mayor. The special election was scheduled originally for March 31, but was pushed back to May 19 due to COVID-19.

The polls will be open across the district, and several city and town clerks said they are preparing to make the voting experience as safe as possible for those who do venture to the polls.

"There will be fewer voting booths. They'll be farther apart," said Barbara LaBombard, Easthampton's city clerk. "We're going to have hand sanitizer. we're purchasing sneeze-guards for the in and the out, and the warden's tables. We're going to have gloves and masks available."

Some communities are also giving each voter their own pencil — which look like those used to keep score at a golf course. Holyoke is enlisting the help of its police department to help manage the number of voters at a polling place at any one time. 

There's a chance in-person voter turnout could be light. As of Tuesday, Westfield reported sending out about 2,000 absentee ballots to voters, with Easthampton mailing about 1,000. Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee said her office has been sending out 100-200 ballots a day over the last few weeks. 

City and town clerks also face the challenge of staffing polling places in the middle of a pandemic. Many poll workers have declined to work the special election. In Westfield, the city will have one centralized polling place, instead of usual number of locations open for that very reason.

Holyoke has been advertising for extra help on election day. 

"We definitely have a good amount of our poll workers that don't feel comfortable coming to the polls, and we completely understand, whether it's because of their age or health concerns," McGee said.

In Southwick, a skeleton crew of town employees and younger people will be used to staff the polls instead of the usual workers, according to Town Clerk Michelle Hill.

"I found it very irresponsible on my part if I called them and asked them to come in, given the nature of the virus," Hill said. "I really feel for their safety and I wanted to make sure that they are safe."

The winner of Tuesday's special election will potentially have two more elections to face before the year is out, in order to win re-election. The current term expires at the end of this year.

McGee said having this special election will provide a good learning experience to see what works, and what doesn't, for September's state primary and November's general election, which will include the presidential race.

"I definitely think this is a good opportunity for us to have this election right now, to use it as an example of what we can expect come the fall," McGee said. 

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