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The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

Brookline works to alleviate concerns around late mail-in ballots

Graphic by Maria Udalova
After facing issues in distributing and collecting mail-in ballots from voters during last year’s elections, the town is making several changes to make mail-in voting easier for residents.


At a meeting in December, the Select Board scheduled this year’s annual town election for May 7, 2024. The town election is one of four elections to be held in Brookline this year, along with the state primary, presidential primary and general state elections. The town election will determine Select Board, School Committee, Library Trustee and Town Meeting seats, among other positions.

Like every election that has taken place in Brookline since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant portion of Brookline voters are expected to vote by mail. Generally, mail-in voting has run smoothly for the last four years. But last year, there were widespread complaints from voters that their mail-in ballots did not arrive at their addresses promptly, leaving a shorter window for voters to fill out and return their ballots to Town Hall. A total of 824 ballots were rejected in accordance with state law because they were returned late. Heading into this year’s May 7 town election, Town Clerk Ben Kaufman said he is working hard to ensure the same does not happen again, but many voters say they still worry.

Since last year’s town election, Kaufman has worked to install three new ballot drop boxes—one at Town Hall, one at the Coolidge Corner Library and one at the Putterham Library— throughout the Town, using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID-era economic stimulus bill. These drop boxes enable voters to vote by mail without going through the Postal Service (USPS), which eliminates shipping time from the equation.

Since last year’s election, Kaufman has also brought the late mail-in ballot issue to the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association, a group he’s a part of, which added the issue to its lobbying wing’s priority list. He also raised the issue with Brookline’s state legislative delegation: Representative Tommy Vitolo and Senator Cindy Creem, who sit on the Joint Committee on Election Laws in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Additionally, Kaufman discussed the issue with the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the office in charge of administering elections in Massachusetts, which also received complaints from Town Meeting Members (TMMs), including Precinct 10 TMM Eric Hyett and constituents who received their ballots late.

Per the town by-laws, the town election must be held on either the first or second Tuesday of May, as determined by the Select Board. While the Select Board generally schedules the election during a January meeting, this year, the Select Board scheduled the election for a December meeting. Kaufman said he hopes this early start will help his office get ahead of the curve in terms of preparation for the town election.

“2024 is a bit of a unique election year for us. It’s a presidential election year, which means we will have a presidential primary in March,” Kaufman said. “That means that in December we’re beginning to do a lot of outreach to voters, to vendors, to our poll workers, to start getting information out about the March primary, as well as the other elections we have that year. So if we know the date for the annual town election, we’re able to include that information in all of these communications.”

At the meeting, Kaufman also said his office is currently putting together the annual town census, which will go to every household in Brookline. He said his office will include a one-pager about the 2024 election cycle as part of that package, which will include information about the town election.

The election doesn’t take place until May, but Kaufman has already been collecting mail-in ballot requests for months.

Kaufman said he hopes all these efforts will help keep voters informed about elections. But regardless of when voter outreach begins, state law still allows candidates to withdraw from a local race just 33 days before election day. Before then, the ballot for the town election cannot be finalized or printed, leaving the Clerk’s office with just a few weeks to finalize, print and distribute ballots.

State law sets the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot five business days before the election, making it difficult for those who request last-minute mail-in ballots to meet the USPS recommendation of leaving at least one week for ballots to ship in each direction.

Precinct 10 TMM Eric Hyett received a number of complaints from constituents about late mail-in ballots last year. He and his partner each received their own ballots less than a week before the election as well. Hyett was quick to communicate this to Kaufman and to the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

“It’s terrifying to read the statistics in the [Cypress] article of how many ballots were rejected in total,” Hyett said. “Those [824 ballots], for whatever reason, came in too late to be processed. That’s a game-changing number of ballots.”


This year, Hyett received a mailer from the Clerk in mid-January. The mailer could be filled out and returned to Town Hall to request mail-in ballots for all the elections this year. Despite having requested a mail-in ballot last year, Hyett said he’s not sure he can do it again.

“It’s been sitting on my table. It’s a little thing that says ‘I want to vote.’ And then it’s got the reply mail to the Brookline Town Clerk. If I fill this out and send it in, I will receive mail-in ballots for all the elections. I don’t know. I feel like I’m just going to have to vote in person,” Hyett said.

Still, Hyett said he likely will return the mailer and request mail-in ballots for this year “just to test it out.”

The mailer, like those the Clerk’s office sent out before last year’s election, was sent to every registered voter in the Town. Registered voters can request mail-in ballots by filling out the mailer and returning it to Town Hall. This year’s mailers allow voters to request mail-in ballots for any of the four elections taking place in 2024. Because they apply to multiple elections, including the presidential primary, which took place two months before the town election, this year’s mailers were sent out earlier than last year’s.

Shellee Robbins, a Precinct 14 resident who had trouble with her ballot last year, said she and her husband have already filled out the clerk’s mailer, requesting mail-in ballots for all four elections this year. Earlier this month, they voted by mail in the presidential primary, having received their primary ballots more than two months in advance of the March 5 election. While Robbins said she trusts mail-in voting, she also said she is prepared this year in case she does have trouble with her ballot.

“I’m not sure I can explain why, but yes I trust it,” Robbins said. “I’m hopeful, and we’ll see. I think that’s as far as we can go. I will keep track of elections, and if nothing is received, I will act accordingly by going over to Town Hall.”

Precinct 3 resident Nancy VanZant, who received her mail-in ballot late last year and had issues tracking her ballot through the TrackMyBallot website, said she and her husband intend to vote by mail for all elections this year. However, VanZant said she has concerns about the postal service and plans to hand-deliver all of her ballots to the ballot drop box that was recently installed at the Coolidge Corner Library, which she did for the presidential primary earlier this month.

Hand-delivering ballots to the drop box eliminates shipping time from the equation, allowing for more wiggle room within the election timeline set by state law. This is especially true given that all mail sent from Brookline passes through Boston, even if it starts and ends in Brookline. But Kaufman said he wants to see broader changes in state law that would decompress the timeline altogether.

“I think that there is a general understanding that this is a new thing that the state is doing with Vote by Mail, including for municipal elections,” Kaufman said. “So I think there is an awareness that there are places where it’s going to be tweaked, and I think the Legislature is going to have to figure out all those tweaks.”

In his advocacy, Kaufman has pointed to examples including Massachusetts general elections, where ballots received within a few days after an election can still be counted so long as they are postmarked on or before election day. But Kaufman said he trusts lawmakers to make the changes they think will be best.

“I have suggested that there are some other instances in the law where there were these allowances made,” Kaufman said. “And those could be used as a model to draft any kind of potential legislative fixes. However, the Legislature, they’re the ones who actually write the laws, so I trust that if they had different thoughts on it, that they would be able to handle those.”

Select Board member John VanScoyoc said he trusts Kaufman to know what his office needs, but he also recognizes the potential drawbacks of counting ballots after election day. VanScoyoc has been a Town Meeting member for many years and has run many Town Meeting races, one of which he won by one vote.

“We literally had a situation in which a neighbor of mine, with whom I’m extremely friendly, had to agree, and I had to agree to a recount of votes even if it might mean I would lose. And that can strain friendships, as it turned out,” VanScoyoc said. “Races may be one way on election night and another way three days later, depending on what comes in the mail.”

Last May, dozens of Town Meeting races were within a handful of votes.

But Debra O’Malley, Communications Director for the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the office in charge of administering elections in Massachusetts, said she is unaware of any movement to introduce legislation that would change the local election timeline. She also encourages people to consider how changes to an election timeline might ripple outwards.

“Sometimes people forget when they propose changing the [election] timeline, you have to change the timeline for everything,” O’Malley said. “For instance, nomination papers would need to be released earlier. If you’re going to mail ballots out earlier then you need to finalize the ballot earlier, and you’re going to have to move all the deadlines having to do with that up.”

Cynthia Stone Creem, who represents Brookline in the Massachusetts State Senate and sits on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws, told The Cypress via email that she is “hopeful the Legislature will continue to have an interest in advancing voting reforms” but did not elaborate as to what that might look like. She said the Legislature received significant feedback from town clerks in drafting, amending and passing the VOTES Act in 2022, which guaranteed everyone the right to vote by mail.

But people need to know that an election is taking place in order to exercise their right to vote by mail, Hyett said. He also said that holding elections in May likely discourages voter turnout and that more people might vote if town elections were held in the fall, like state and presidential elections.

“Every single time we have an election here, my biggest challenge is reminding people that there’s an election at all,” Hyett said. “They don’t have any idea; how would they know? What media is exactly reaching them that would have a single story about the Brookline election?”


Wellesley Town Clerk K.C. Kato also worries about voter outreach in her town. Kato said she sends out voter information along with the town census in January like Brookline did this year. But Wellesley rejected only 103 ballots for lateness last year, with a total voter turnout of 4,370. That’s compared to Brookline’s 824 rejected for lateness with a total voter turnout of 12,538, a ratio three times larger than Wellesley’s.

According to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, Brookline remains the only town with such high proportions. While Kato said allowing voters to submit new mail-in ballot requests just a week before the election is a tight turnaround, she does not think the short timeline is the root of the problem.

“I agree that there are many ballots that ended up not being counted because they were late,” Kato said. “I did some analysis on when we mailed those ballots out. I can see when we mailed out a specific ballot to a specific person who happened that it arrive late.”

Of the 103 ballots rejected for lateness in Wellesley’s February 2023 town election, only four were requested on the last day to request a mail-in ballot. According to Kato, 87 ballots, nearly 85 percent of those rejected for lateness, were sent to voters at least two weeks before the election.

“The majority of ballots that were received late were sent out the second week of February, which should have been ample time,” Kato said. “So, while it does get crunched at the end, I think some of it is that it’s hard-hitting a deadline. So I’m not as sure that the reason for the lateness is because of the tight timing.”

According to data received by The Cypress through a FOIA request, in Brookline, 279 of the ballots received late were mailed out between 14 and 12 days before the election. Comparatively, 256 of the ballots rejected for lateness were requested on April 24 or April 25, the last day to request a mail-in ballot.

“Both of these numbers are why we encourage voters to send their request in early and return their ballot as soon as possible,” Kaufman said in an email.

In an interview, Kaufman elaborated on these steps the town is taking to alleviate the concerns around ensuring that mail-in ballots are counted.

“One of the big things we’re encouraging people to do, knowing that the post office has had issues getting ballots to us on election day is instead of dropping [your ballot] in one of those blue [Post Office] boxes, if you can drop it in the ballot drop box, it cuts out the post office and ensures that we are going to get the ballot in time for election day,” Kaufman said. “As long as you put it in there before the deadline, that means that we’re going to get it before the deadline.”


O’Malley said she is not currently aware of any efforts to introduce legislation that would change the timeline for municipal elections in Massachusetts.

This May, Kaufman is up for reelection as Town Clerk. Town Administrator Chas Carey has reviewed and approved the process through which Kaufman will administer the election he’s running in.

Hyett will not be running for reelection to Town Meeting, but he said he will probably vote for Kaufman.

“The law led to our Town Clerk being overwhelmed in a horrifying way,” Hyett said, “He followed the law, and the law led him astray.”

No laws were violated, but Hyett said that does not make it better for Brookline residents whose votes were not counted last year. He said he hopes that widespread mail-in voting can become a smoother process in the future.

“It’s just a normal thing to request an absentee ballot,” Hyett said. “It’s the most normal thing in the world. I don’t want it to be something weird or exotic, but right now it seems like it’s something weird and exotic.”

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