Massachusetts towns and cities will spend thousands of dollars to prep voting machines, staff polling locations and notify voters of any big changes in their election routines for the March 6 presidential primary.

(Editor's note: Dailies, please hold off on running until March 2 or later.)


Democracy comes with a price, and local government pays most of the bill.


Massachusetts towns and cities will spend thousands of dollars to prep voting machines, staff polling locations and notify voters of any big changes in their election routines for the March 6 presidential primary.


Several municipal clerks expect relatively few voters to show up, but that makes little difference in terms of cost. Clerks typically organize for a busy day, just in case a crowd shows up ready to exercise its civic duty.


“There’s a certain base amount of work that has to be done before any election,” said Donna Hooper, Lexington’s town clerk and president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association. “You have to prepare and be ready for a full turnout.”


The vote will be held on what is known nationally as Super Tuesday, when nine other states also will hold primaries or caucuses to help decide the GOP nomination for president, as well as state and local party committee seats.


By state law, polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in all cities and towns.


The state will help local governments with costs in three areas. First, state government paid to print the ballots for Tuesday’s contest, including samples available at the polls, said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin’s office.


The state also foots the bill for programming special polling machines that are set up for disabled voters, McNiff said.


Lastly, because of a 1983 law that expanded polling times by three hours in state and national elections, Massachusetts reimburses cities and towns for keeping polls open that extra time, said Christopher Thompson, a spokesman for the state auditor’s office.


The auditor’s Division of Local Mandates does a cost analysis for each relevant election to determine how much the state should pay, Thompson said.


Despite that state support, the bulk of election costs fall to towns and cities, most clerks said. Staffing the election is typically the biggest expense.


Communities are required to post at least one constable or police officer at each polling site, clerks said. Some smaller towns opt for constables, who are cheaper, while other communities hire full police details, which often come at a significant cost.


State law also requires at least six election workers at each polling location – a clerk, a warden and four other workers, Hooper said.


Payment differs widely from one community to the next, but several clerks said they pay poll workers close to the state’s minimum wage of $8 an hour or a bit more.


“Some communities have had it their practice that they provide meals to their poll workers,” Hooper said. “Their compensation varies, depending on what the practice is in the community.”


It’s also up to local officials whether to take on more than the minimum staff required, based on how busy they expect an election to be.


Then comes the cost of buying voting machines and keeping them in working order. Towns and cities are responsible for their own equipment and typically spend time testing it in the weeks before an election.


Most contract with private companies to maintain and program the devices, which typically need new memory cards for each election. Some communities also pay to keep a repairman on hand throughout election day in case of technical problems.


Complicating matters, clerks also are publicizing changes in voting precincts, and in some cases, polling locations this year.


Changes in population have shifted the lines in some communities. Several towns and cities said they mailed notifications to voters to let them know. Nonetheless, clerks expect questions and some confusion at the polls.


“With a redistricting year, people may think they vote at place A even though they vote at place B,” said Diane Packer, Natick’s town clerk.


Towns and cities also see some extra costs in the lead-up to an election.


Clerks are required to keep their offices open until 8 p.m. the last day to register to vote before an election, sometimes requiring some limited overtime to staff the office. Staff may rack up extra hours after a busy election as they tally votes after the polls close.


Other expenses are harder to quantify. For example, clerks said they go through considerable ink and paper to print the voter check-in and check-out books required at every polling location, but that cost comes out of their regular budget.


Overall, election costs vary widely, depending in part on a town or city’s size. In Quincy, City Clerk Joe Shea said he hires about 180 election workers for 30 polling sites. Each makes $10 an hour for about 16 hours of work.


In Quincy's most recent election, the city also spent about $37,000 on police details, Shea said.


It also can cost up to $300 a piece to program each of the city’s 31 optical scanning ballot machines, according to Shea. The city also incurred costs to advertise the election and polling places in three languages.


It typically costs 10-12 cents to print each ballot in a city election, Shea said. While the state is picking up the tab for this contest, Shea said the city will spend considerably more in its next local election to meet a federal requirement that Quincy provide ballots in both Chinese and English.


“My printing budget has shot way up,” he said.


A costly election can run the city as much as $80,000, but this one will likely be less because the state is printing the ballots, Shea said.


In Marshfield, Town Clerk Patricia Picco said elections usually cost her town about $15,000 altogether.


“It will be busy just changing precincts," she said. “It’s a godsend that Marshfield’s polls are located at one school. The most (voters) have to do is walk up to me and ask what precinct they’re in.”


Beverly City Clerk Kathleen Connolly estimated her city will spend just over $4,000 on programming voting machines and nearly $16,000 on election workers and police.


“We prepare the same for each election,” she said. “Whether one person comes out or 20,000 come out, I have to be prepared.”


Marblehead Town Clerk Robin Michaud estimated her town spends roughly $9,300 on elections where it does not have to print ballots. She said the past week had been busy with preparations.


“You’re getting the machines coded,” she said. “You’re preparing the voters list. You’re doing training with your poll workers and your wardens.”


Some towns, including Lexington, combine their local election with a statewide contest, which may save on staff costs and prove more convenient for voters. However, it means Lexington has to print a second ballot for its local contest, Hooper said. 


In a similar vein, several clerks said they would support moving the state primary to the same date as the presidential primary in order to save money. But legislation to do so has failed to advance at the State House.


“It didn’t survive,” Shea said. “It got killed in committee.”


(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.)