Select Board Delays Calling Special Election

by William F. Galvin
Town Clerk Emily Mitchell lays out special election options for for select board. FILE PHOTO Town Clerk Emily Mitchell lays out special election options for for select board. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH – A citizen’s petition calling for a special election to fill the seat created by the resignation of member Mary Anderson requires that the select board set a date for residents to cast ballots. But just when an election will be held remains uncertain.

The board on Monday night delayed making a decision for another week, after Town Clerk Emily Mitchell proposed holding the special election one day before next year’s annual town election.

Mitchell initially recommended that the special election not be held before April 9, which is just six weeks prior to the May 1 annual town election. Major factors impacting the timing include the March 5 presidential primary, she said.

On Monday the special election petitioner, Patrick Otton, sought to nullify the petition and the special election. He said he had hoped the election could be held in January so there would be a five-member board serving the community for close to six months.

Otton said he wished that the select board had taken steps to call the special election in mid November, but it would make no sense to call a special election just six weeks before the annual election.

The petition calling for a special election to fill Anderson’s unexpired term has the necessary 200 signatures of registered voters, Mitchell said; the board of registrars certified 242 signatures. She recommended the earliest date to conduct the election should be April 9, because her staff needs time to prepare for the March primary election.

Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh said Monday that the board is compelled to call the special election because the petition had the necessary signatures.

When the board votes to call the special election, statutory deadlines require 64 days before the election can be held. Mitchell said if the board called the election last Monday, the earliest date for the election would have been Feb. 6.

“The presidential primary election will already have three separate ballots — Democrat, Republican and Independent ballots. Managing a fourth ballot style is likely to increase confusion and opportunities for errors, for both election workers and voters,” according to Mitchell.

As of the end of January Mitchell’s staff will be preparing for the high volume primary election, which includes processing mail-in ballots, early voting and advance processing of absentee ballots. She said there would also be insufficient time for the tabulator memory cards necessary for counting votes electronically to be reprogrammed and tested for the two elections.

“This is the first time in a long time Patrick Otton and I have agreed on something,” Select Board member Michael MacAskill said of Otton’s wish to nullify the election.

MacAskill said several of the signers of the petition have told him they did not understand what the petition was asking for. He has repeatedly stated his opposition to the special election based on the cost. Select Board member Jeffrey Handler also agreed there was a lot of misinformation about the petition. Kavanagh said the board tried on a weekly basis to get its position out to the public.

“I was more interested in the democracy part of this rather than the $20,000,” Select Board member Donald Howell said of the election. Howell called for a positive motion to hold the special election in early November, but that motion did not receive a second.

Given the interest in nullifying a special election, Mitchell said the election could be called for May 20, the day before the town’s annual election. The law requires an election to be held before the annual election, she said. A candidate would be elected for one day.

“Given the board’s discussion, I would not have put the idea out into the universe, had not Patrick Otton said he was looking to nullify it,” Mitchell said. “The idea is not fully fleshed out.”

Steps can be taken by the select board to reduce the cost of such an election, she said, including reducing polling hours, saving the cost of election workers and police details. The board could vote not to allow voting by mail, so staff doesn’t have to process ballots. The voting booths and equipment could be set up one time for use for the May 20 special election and the annual town election on the following day. That would reduce costs associated with the department of public works’ expense for setting up and taking down the election equipment, she added.

Mitchell said the proposal was just an idea and is contingent on getting more information from town counsel and whether the town can get additional memory cards from the vote tabulator vendor.

The select board on Monday night agreed this approach was worth examining, and agreed to delay a decision on the special election for another week. Should it not come to fruition, Mitchell is looking at April 9 for the special election. Candidates would have to take out nomination papers by Feb, 16, and the last day to submit papers for certification would be Feb, 20.