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City election was flawed, state finds

Understaffing, coercion cited; changes sought

A state review of Boston's Sept. 23 preliminary election has uncovered numerous violations of election regulations, finding that the city failed to adequately staff precincts, allowed candidates to campaign within 5 feet of polling places, and did not provide voters sufficient privacy when casting their ballots.

In a six-page letter, Secretary of State William F. Galvin's legal counsel told Boston election chairwoman Nancy Lo that she had been reminded repeatedly of the city's legal responsibilities in the run-up to the election. The lawyer urged the city to come up with solutions in time for the Nov. 4 general election.

"We're concerned not only for the present situation but for next year's presidential election, where turnout promises to be much higher," said Galvin, who noted in an interview yesterday that compliance with state regulations ensures fair elections under state and federal laws. "They have to resolve these issues."

The letter, dated Oct. 3 and obtained by the Globe yesterday, is the first step in what could lead to a state takeover of upcoming elections, though Galvin said he is optimistic that the city will comply in time for the Nov. 4 election. Under state law, the secretary of state has the authority to take over municipal elections.

City officials refused to make Lo available to comment on the letter yesterday, though in the past she has blamed some of the problems of Sept. 23 on the transition to computerized voting machines, which Boston voters used for the first time. She also said she had hoped to address the problems with better training of elections workers.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Michael Galvin, the city's chief of basic city services and supervisor of the Election Department, said that he was uncertain what measures had been taken to address the state's concerns since receiving the letter two weeks ago.

"Everybody worked so hard to make this election work," he said, lamenting the loss of "team spirit" he thought the secretary of state showed by releasing the letter to the Globe. "We did it -- that in itself is a milestone."

He vowed that the city would try to address the secretary of state's concerns, but said he doubted much of it could be accomplished by the general election two weeks from today.

One of the major problems, he said, was staffing at the city's 181 polling places. According to city election records obtained by the Globe through a Freedom of Information Act request, staffing across the city was more than 40 percent below the accepted level set by the state, with 891 paid election workers filling as many as 1,500 positions.

State regulations require a warden and a clerk at each polling place, and four inspectors at each precinct. Lo, the city election chairwoman, apparently knew she was not going to have enough workers prior to the election and had appealed to the secretary of state in August for lenience. The state granted the city an allowance for fewer workers in selected, low-voting precincts.

But the secretary of state said his staff visited 31 of the city's 254 precincts and found that all 31 were understaffed. "We certainly didn't give them a blank check to have as few workers as they wanted," he said yesterday. "They didn't have enough people almost everywhere. That's not accepable."

At least one community activist said the understaffing made it easier for campaign workers to influence voters' choices. Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said a lack of translators for non-English-speaking voters in Chinatown meant bilingual people standing nearby were asked to act as translators. Many times, she said, those people were aligned with particular candidates and used the opportunity to coerce voters into casting their ballots for their chosen candidates. Lowe filed a formal complaint last week about the practice with Galvin's office.

The secretary of state yesterday agreed that understaffing could have opened the door to such illegal practices and added that inadequate name tags on poll workers could have confused voters as well.

He also said his office would require multilingual signs in polling places describing illegal practices, such as voter coercion.

Galvin's office also criticized the city for failing to ensure voter privacy. At many polling locations visited by state observers, envelope-type ballot covers known as "secrecy sleeves" were not provided to voters, and in some cases, election workers took completed ballots from voters and fed them face-up into the machines, exposing voters' choices.

The city fired a warden in South Boston, Bob Madden, shortly after the election, when it became clear that he had read completed ballots, city officials confirmed.

Another violation outlined by the state was the virtual gantlet of candidates and campaigners voters had to walk through to get to some polling places. Under state regulations, electioneering is prohibited within 150 feet of the polls.

"Voters had to maneuver through an obstacle course of candidates and persons holding signs and campaigning in order to enter their polling place," wrote the secretary of state's legal counsel, Michelle K. Tassinari.

Michael Galvin, the city's chief of basic services, said this has been a perennial problem in Boston. He also took issue with the regulation, which in a compact city like Boston could mean campaigning would have to take place as far away as four blocks from polling places.

The secretary of state said he looked forward to working with the city to correct the violations outlined in the letter and warned he did not plan to make any exceptions.

"We don't have two separate sets of regulations, one for Boston and one for everybody else," he said.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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