Rochester Reluctantly Approves Early Voting

            Town Clerk Paul Dawson sought and was given a somewhat reluctant approval to initiate an early voting option with Rochester residents during the Board of Selectmen’s May 18 remote access meeting.

            The approval means that all registered voters in the Town of Rochester will receive a letter explaining the process along with an application to request a ballot. In order to enact the process and engage in early voting, residents will need to return the application to the town clerk’s office either by mail or in-person. Then those voters will be sent ballots that they can then return on or before the election day of Wednesday, June 17.

            The motivation is simple. Rochester has but one polling place, the Senior Center on Dexter Lane, and would like to avoid a crowd.

            “(The process of) early voting is exactly the same as an absentee ballot,” said Dawson, explaining how absentee voting is defined by law as a registered voter who cannot get to the polls because of emergency or work-related circumstances or a religious holiday. “The difference here is early voting is typically not available for town elections, and since the (state) legislature gave us this ability to have it for town elections, we should take advantage.”

            Under the proposal now approved, Rochester voters will be afforded the same opportunity that an absentee ballot provides, and this obviously based on safety precautions associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

            Chairman Paul Ciaburri asked Dawson what would keep anyone from voting twice. Dawson pointed out that the same risk is being taken with the absentee system and the early voting option being extended at the state and federal levels to the recent presidential primary as well as the November election.

            “There are checks and balances in the system to make sure no one votes twice,” said Dawson, noting that state law requires that polls be open on election day (June 17). “But to the greatest extent possible, it behooves us to limit the number coming into the polls.”

            “No matter what we do, whether we decide to do this or not, we should look at the options and let (residents) know early as we can,” said selectman Woody Hartley, who is running for reelection this year. “I think a lot of people enjoy going to the polls – I know I enjoy going – to do that thing that is democracy.”

            Town Administrator Suzanne Szyndlar reported that, of Rochester’s 4,457 registered voters, 90 have already filed an application to vote remotely, leaving 4,367. She also estimated based on those numbers that the early-voting application process would cost the town $2,183 and, with a maximum response, the potential for another $2,840 in costs for mailing ballots. Szyndlar said the maximum total cost would approximate $5,000.

            Dawson told the board, “If you give me the OK today, potentially by the end of this week and the beginning of next week they could all be out the door.”

            Despite efforts to communicate options via the town website, its Facebook page and the local press, Dawson indicated that the best way to get the message across is to send voters a letter.

            Vice Chairman Brad Morse said, “We need to do this” and made the motion to approve. Hartley seconded “for the sake of protecting the people of Rochester,” and Ciaburri approved “reluctantly.”

            The plan was for Szyndlar, Town Counsel Blair Bailey and all the selectmen to review the letter before it is mailed out. “As long as it’s got information about the town meeting, etc., it would be worthwhile,” said Ciaburri. Bailey suggested the letter include “everything we can get in there that doesn’t overwhelm folks.”

            Dawson thanked the board, calling theirs a “tough decision.”

            As for the polling place itself, Town Facilities Manager Andrew Daniel discussed tentative plans for walking traffic at the Senior Center polling place and said he thinks the town can avoid paying to rent a tent by adopting a plan for walking traffic. The main feature would be a walk-through in which voters would exit the building out a different door than the front entrance.

            Bailey expressed concern within the constant-flow model for disabled voters. Daniel said the added walkway around the back of the building would make it possible for a safe passage for disabled voters.

            “Andrew’s always mindful of ADA requirements. He’s done a good job,” said Hartley.

            Dawson said he expects soon to receive the secretary of state’s policies for maintaining social distancing in the polling locations. “We know we’re going to have to take different measures. I think the entrance will have to stay the entrance, then we’ll guide people out of the building,” he said.

            Szyndlar suggested that the matter could be addressed at the public safety meeting scheduled at the end of the month.

            In other business, Hartley publicly thanked Marcia Kessler for her work not only rolling out the town’s current plan to tune-up its recycling program, but for her efforts fielding complaints and questions on social media. “She has been an amazing, amazing, (public-relations) director for the Town of Rochester. She didn’t have to do this at all, she could have directed everything to town hall,” said Hartley. “My hat’s off to the work she’s doing.”

            Szyndlar agreed. “I’ve talked with her quite a bit (Monday)… told her she’s doing awesome work, great PR, and she really appreciated that.” Szyndlar said Kessler has clarified for residents what falls under recycling and what does not. “She’s phenomenal to work with her every day.”

            Hartley shared on his Zoom screen a photo of a canopy-mounted solar array like the one that may wind up at Rochester Memorial School.

            Szyndlar said she had emailed to the selectmen Governor Baker’s May 18 orders as Massachusetts begins a multiphase reopening.

            Barring emergency, the next meeting of the Rochester Board of Selectmen is scheduled for Monday, June 1, at 11:00 am, at which point Szyndlar will present a draft budget. She told the board’s members that they will need to sign the warrant on Monday, June 8, to get it posted for the June 22 town meeting. The selectmen are expected to make recommendations and vote on budget at their June 8 meeting.

Rochester Board of Selectmen

By Mick Colageo

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