By Katina Caraganis
In towns like Ashby and Shirley, it’s all about tradition.
And one of those customary — although some would say antiquated and tedious — traditions is hand-counting ballots on election night, rather than using an electronic ballot box.
“It’s just tradition. We always have. There are plenty of communities that still do it and there’s probably a financial aspect tied to it,” said Amy McDougall, Shirley’s town clerk for the last five years. Going to a machine count “hasn’t come up during my tenure, and I haven’t explored the option of purchasing the machine. I know about them.”
According to Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office, 71 communities in Massachusetts still hand-count their ballots.
“I think the communities that have their ballots hand-counted are used to it, as are the voters and the election officials,” he said. “They recognize that the results aren’t going to come in as fast as the electronic counting, but they’re accustomed to it.”
Shirley Selectmen Chairman Kendra Dumont said in her year and a half serving on the board, the idea of switching ballot-counting methods has never been brought up.
“I know a lot of towns use the computers, but we have a lot of committed people in town that come in and do that,” she said.
While Dumont admitted she didn’t know how much it would cost to buy an electronic voting machine, she said the town can’t afford to make unnecessary purchases.
“I’m sure right now we don’t have the money to invest in that,” she said, adding that any request to purchase the machines would likely have to go before selectmen. “The board has other priorities right now … I guess I would have to look at the cost first. I would say that it’s the town’s responsibility to find it (the money) and Shirley couldn’t do that now. If I had to choose between that or putting another police officer or fireman out there, I’d (hire).”
McDougall admitted the process of counting ballots on election night can be lengthy. The town utilizes up to 30 volunteers to help count.
McDougall said if the town decides to invest in an electronic-ballot machine, the issue would have to go before selectmen at least 120 days before the primary, preliminary election or election, according to Massachusetts General Law.
The town must also let the secretary of the commonwealth know within five days of the vote.
In Ashby, Selectman Dan Meunier said the town has never explored purchasing an electronic ballot box because the town’s relatively small turnout during elections doesn’t warrant them buying potentially costly equipment.
“We’ve never looked into it because the number of voters that turn out is so small,” Meunier said, noting that about 500 voters typically turn out in a town election. “I don’t know if getting the ballot machines and the cost of the equipment is worth it.”
Meunier has served on various town boards, including the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen for nearly eight years, and the subject has never come up.
In addition to the cost of buying a machine, the number of people willing to volunteer in town is also a reason that moving to a different form of counting ballots may not be worth it.
“I would be willing to bet that that’s part of the reason we don’t do an automated system,” Meunier said. “Ashby is usually pretty active with things and there’s an active volunteer population here. For the size of the town, the effectiveness of volunteer committees is incredible. The people that do volunteer take it very seriously, and if there was any real and legitimate reason for getting the new machines, it would have been brought up.”