Monterey voter ID dustup leads to questions, confusion, complaint with the state
MONTEREY — It was the first time Elizabeth King had ever been asked to produce an identification to vote.
"When they asked me for it, I said, 'There's no ID law in Massachusetts.'"
And then she ran back out to her car to get it.
King said an election worker manning the polls in the town clerk's office at Town Hall told her that in response to an email that morning, workers were instructed to ask voters for an ID, which is against state law, except under a few circumstances.
"I'm disturbed that this could happen in a little tiny town where everybody knows each other," she said.
King wasn't alone. The state is now investigating a complaint filed by Monterey resident Sara Mugridge, who told the Secretary of the Commonwealth's Elections Division that on an early voting day she, too, was instructed to produce an ID before she could vote.
"I am extremely concerned about the misinformation and invitation to bias and harassment that was on display," Mugridge wrote in her complaint. She did not respond to requests for comment.
But Town Clerk Terry Walker said she was simply being conscientious and using the discretion allowed her by the state. She also said there was some confusion from the state about when to ask voters for an ID, and that amid a somewhat chaotic and busy election, she may have misread part of an email from the elections division. She also said new and elderly election workers may have been confused.
"I'm not blaming them — I blame myself," she said. "What I misread was that you had to ask [for ID] if you didn't know the person."
Massachusetts is one of 16 states that, along with Washington, D.C., do not require voters to present any identification documents at the polls. The elections division says voters might be asked for an ID if voting for the first time, have been inactive, are casting a provisional or challenged ballot, and if the election worker "has a reasonable suspicion" to ask for an ID.
Walker said this discretion is partly what led her to ask for IDs during this busy election in which 71 percent of registered voters cast ballots, in what she also said was a "contentious" political atmosphere at Town Hall during voting.
"I did fear for my safety," she said, noting that Assistant Town Clerk Gary Shaw had to tell one voter, "We don't discuss Trump in here."
On Nov. 6, the polling place got downright testy when, Walker says, an irate election worker accused her of voter suppression, after which Walker asked the police officer on duty to heighten his watch while she asked the worker to leave.
"One of my election workers was screaming at me and telling me that I was tying to keep these eight people from voting," Walker said. "She got them all riled up."
But Walker said no one was denied the right to vote because they didn't present an ID.
"All the people that are registered voters, voted — that's the bottom line," she said.
Federal law requires first-time voters registering to vote by mail to produce an ID, said Debra O'Malley, an elections specialist with the state's elections division.
O'Malley said that while poll workers have discretion to ask for identification under these circumstances, they can't do it willy-nilly.
"We have advised them about ways to go about that," she said. "If you're asking people, you need to make sure you're doing it consistently and for consistent reasons."
But no one in Massachusetts, O'Malley added, can be denied the right to vote for failure to produce an ID. If you can't show ID under the few circumstances when it's required, state law gives you the right to cast a "challenged ballot," which is counted on election night, O'Malley said.
Nationally, voter ID laws are steeped in controversy as studies clash about whether the laws suppress voter turnout among people of color and young, vulnerable citizens.
In Monterey, however, turnout was robust. Walker said that out of 669 registered voters, 469 voted, including the 24 who had previously been inactive.
But two people could not vote because they tried to register the day of the election. And 12 people who do not reside in Monterey tried to vote here — they were refused, but given information about where to vote.
Some of these were part of a group from a Monterey therapeutic community, Gould Farm.
"One was from Egremont and the other was from Cambridge," Walker said, noting that the election workers didn't recognize them.
"It's not a crime for an election worker to ask for an ID if they don't know the person," Walker said. "But one of my election workers got in my face and said, `You cannot stop them from voting.'"
That worker was Patricia Salomon, 78. It was Salomon who prompted Walker to tell the police officer that he might have to intervene, before Salomon left. But Salomon says it wasn't quite that dramatic.
"The officer didn't say a word," she said. "He leaned against the wall and looked at me. [Walker] asked me to leave. I didn't argue."
Salomon, who says she is politically active and passionate, said she had simply been thrilled that the Gould Farm group had come to vote.
"I do push people to vote," she said. "I think we should err on the side of voting. I kind of have a big mouth generally, but I said, `I'm so glad you're here to vote.' That was not welcomed by Terry [Walker]. She thought I was interfering."
Salomon said the requests for IDs were not "universal," but she didn't know what standard Walker was using.
Walker, who has been town clerk here for 2 1/2 years, and has been town clerk in Tolland and assistant town clerk in New Marlborough, said the heat was turned up during this election in a way she has never experienced.
"This was by far the worst," she said. "We had such confrontations. I was threatened in here. [They said] if I didn't let them vote then there would be a war here."
Select Board Chairman Kenneth Basler praised Walker, saying he thought it was "one of the best elections we've had, apart from that one incident."
"The kicker for me was that we did hand ballots and all were into Boston that evening," he said, noting that the town does not have electronic machines and relies on elderly workers at the polls. "Usually, we're one of the towns left out."
The elections division was unable to investigate the complaint last week due to Walker's limited business hours, but will continue to do so in the coming days, O'Malley said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.