BOSTON -- Voting rights advocates are urging cities and towns to install more drop boxes to collect vote-by-mail ballots sent ahead of the November election, and the state's top election official is pledging to pick up the tab. 

Election officials predict a record turnout for the Nov. 3 election, when Massachusetts voters will pick a president and U.S. Senator amid a host of other races. They're also bracing for a crush of ballots cast by mail amid concerns about spread of COVID-19. 

Ahead of last spring's municipal elections and the Sept. 1 state primary, cities and towns installed secure "drop boxes" for voters to deposit ballots they had requested by mail. Expanded vote-by-mail options were allowed under a state law passed in response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

"A lot of communities like Boston only have one drop box, which is woefully inefficient," said Pam Wilmot, vice president of state operations at Common Cause, a national advocacy group. "If you have a ballot you should be able to drop it somewhere securely, and not have to worry about the Postal Service." 

Secretary of State Bill Galvin's office, which oversees elections, is pledging that the state will reimburse cities and towns for the cost of additional boxes. In an email to local clerks, his office said they must certify the boxes are only used for ballots and applications for ballots, not other municipal business.

Local election clerks say the cost of a drop box can run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $3,000 for a higher-end version.

Galvin spokeswoman Deb O'Malley said there are no limits on the number of drop boxes a community can install provided they follow guidelines on security, labeling, accessibility and staffing. She said only a few communities, including Salem and Somerville, have more than one. 

"They have to have enough staff devoted to monitoring the boxes and emptying them regularly," she said. "So they can’t go crazy by putting them on every street corner."

Last spring the drop boxes were mostly placed outside city and town halls, and they proved popular amid concerns the Postal Service couldn't keep up with a surge of mailed ballots or guarantee they would be delivered on time to be counted.

Voting rights advocates say the popularity of the drop boxes should be a signal to install more, especially in places where access might be limited. 

The federal Election Assistance Commission recommends one box for every 15,000 to 20,000 voters. But it says election officials should add more in communities that do not use vote-by-mail frequently.

Whether cities and towns will add more drop boxes remains unclear. Several local clerks say they have boxes but aren't planning to install more before November.

State election officials haven't said how many of the more than record 1.7 million ballots cast in the primary were by mail, but some city and town clerks say it was as many as half.

Newburyport Clerk Richard Jones said the city has a large drop box at City Hall that worked well in the primary, and he doesn't see the need for another.

"I think what we have is working," he said. "I don't want to confuse voters by changing anything." 

Lynn City Clerk Janet Rowe said clerks were emptying a large drop box outside City Hall "three or four times a day" ahead of the primary. 

She too is concerned about confusing voters by installing more boxes around the city, but she said communities that don't have one should consider it. 

"Now that the state is reimbursing communities, if you didn't have one before, you'd be crazy not to get one now," she said. 

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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