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Ballot woes spur call for education

Paying attention would ease voting, clerks say

There were young voters who registered at a rock concert and whose forms never made it to their town clerk's office, and out-of-state voters who tried to file provisional ballots in Massachusetts. Area town clerks heard so many tales of woe and ignorance last Tuesday that some are considering pushing the Legislature to pass a ''voters' responsibilities bill."

When Whitman Town Clerk Pamela Martin jokingly suggested the idea to her counterpart in Barnstable, Linda Hutchenrider, who also heads of the Massachusetts Town Clerks' Association, Hutchenrider snapped to attention.

Provisional ballots, which registered residents can file if they were unable to vote at the polls, did help a handful of people whose names did not appear on voter rolls because of clerical mistakes. But for the most part, clerks said, the ballots showed that many people don't know enough about the voting process.

Hutchenrider's patience was tested by a swaggering Texas student who was too busy to fill out an absentee form and complained about voter disenfranchisement when he was refused a provisional ballot.

''What we're looking for is a voters' responsibilities bill that says yes, you do have a right to vote, but you yourself must be responsible if you want to vote," Hutchenrider said.

She said that means people must register in time and keep their voter registrations active, know where to vote, and fill out census forms to let clerks know which voters are still residents of a community.

Clerk Brian P. Howard said four of Randolph's roughly 100 provisional ballots were filed by residents who had registered well after the deadline. One woman, whom Howard had registered two days before the election, insisted on filing a ballot even after he told her it wouldn't count.

''I think [she] just wanted to feel part of the process," he said.

Clerks also noted the problems faced by voters who registered at sporting events and concerts, instead of at their local clerk's office.

''If you and I go to the football game, we register voters and then after [the game] we decide to get smashed, we leave those voter registration files at the bar, or throw them in the trash," said Milton Town Clerk James G. Mullen Jr.

Mullen said the town had 56 provisional ballots. Seven have been ruled legitimate, but the rest were still being reviewed as of Monday, he said.

Hutchenrider said the bill would resemble the Voters' Bill of Rights, which informs people of voting rights, such as the right to request special assistance at the polls. The idea will be one of many considered at the Town Clerks Association meeting in February, she said.

''Everything is in the formulation stages right now," Hutchenrider said. ''What we're doing is gathering all kinds of ideas for changes, and we're hoping once the changes are put through it will make it more positive for voters."

But Rock the Vote spokesman Jay Strell, whose organization registered about 1.5 million new voters this year, disagreed that voters needed a document telling them to be more responsible. Some, he said, were misled by election officials. In Arizona and Pennsylvania, for example, some out-of-state college students were told their university address was not permanent and therefore they couldn't register, he said.

''It's the clerks' job to know what the election laws are and it's their job to explain that to people registered to vote," Strell said. ''It's almost like they want to pass the buck on to the voter."

Hutchenrider said any document the association sponsors should be seen as a ''positive" handout that voters would receive when they registered.

''Our job is to educate people and we're just making sure we look at another educational piece for voters," she said.

Maria Cramer can be reached at

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