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Voting commences in Barnstable 3 hours late after ballots are stuck in town's vault

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Eve Zuckoff / WCAI
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The vault at the Town of Barnstable. The ballots for the town were trapped inside, after a malfunction with the lock prevented it from being opened.

UPDATE 8:45pm

The vault in Barnstable's Town Hall was finally cracked open shortly before 8pm, after almost nine hours of trying.

Town Clerk Ann Quirk was philosophical as she surveyed the contents.

“You can see from the vault that everything is there," she said. "Everything was ready to go and be out there for all of the wardens and the clerks so that it could have been a very smooth day. Stuff happens.”

While the vault opening represented a victory, it did not mark a finish to the evening for election officials. Polls in Barnstable's 13 precincts stay open until midnight. Then begins the hand counting of the ballots printed to replace those locked inside the vault.

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Eve Zuckoff / WCAI
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Barnstable Town Clerk Ann Quirk prepares to enter the vault for the first time after it was successfully broken into.
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Eve Zuckoff / CAI
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The interior of the vault after it was successfully broken into, with the bags and boxes of ballots still ready to go out to precincts. The specialty locksmith believes the door's failed mechanism can be repaired.
Barnstable Primary Day Problems -- update at 4:50
CAI's Steve Junker and Eve Zuckoff discuss the latest in the town's effort to overcome a rocky start to a day that began with the town's ballots getting locked inside an inoperable vault. We discuss the replacement ballots, the extension of polling hours, and the work to break into the locked vault. Update aired at 4:50pm

READ: How did the vault get unlocked in Barnstable, and what does it say about election security?

UPDATE: 3:15pm

Polls in the town will stay open to 12 midnight, the town has announced.

Due to the delayed opening caused by the inability of the Town Clerk to access ballots in the town vault, polling hours were extended to ensure there were 13 voting hours in Barnstable today.

Polls in the rest of the Commonwealth will still close at 8pm.

Meanwhile, a Boston-area locksmith specializing in safes and vaults has been on the scene since around 11am. The locksmith is using a scope, sledgehammer, drill, and the help of a DPW worker to try to open the vault, which is located on the bottom floor of Town Hall.

Want to know how that's done? Good question. On the other side of the vault door is an inner door handle, so that if someone got stuck inside, they could open it easily. If the locksmith can drill a hole through the vault’s door and pull that handle down, he says, he’ll be able to get inside.

That hasn’t happened yet, but Town Clerk Ann Quirk remains hopeful.

"I think we're getting close," Quirk said. "I'm crossing my fingers and saying my prayers—but I think we're getting very close."

The locksmith says he’s confident the vault has not been tampered with since officials last entered on Saturday. The issue, he says, is likely attributable to overuse over the last 60-or-70 years.

The locksmith has asked that his name not be used, for safety reasons.

W EVE Locksmith - CAI.mp3

VOTING HOURS EXTENDED

Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin tells CAI that extending hours into the evening will help ensure that the primary is fair. 

"The reason we would want to extend the hours is to accommodate the person who may have left the town this morning, who had to work or to travel or do something else outside the town and won’t be back until after 8 o’clock," Galvin said. "That’s the group we’re trying to accommodate."

And he says he wants to hear from any voter who may have been aggrieved. 

“I do want to hear from them and make sure that every single voter — I don’t care what party they are a part of — every single voter gets the right to participate," Galvin said. "That is the most important thing to me right now.”

Galvin says his office wants to hear from registered voters in Barnstable that may have had difficulty voting. The telephone number to call is: 800 462-VOTE (8683). 

Galvin says it’s not unprecedented to extend voting hours well into the evening, but that the situation in Barnstable is somewhat unique in that no one could cast a ballot during the morning hours. Voting hours have been extended due to snowstorms in the past. 

UPDATE 11:30am
Here's a recap of what's happened today, with fresh details from Barnstable Town Clerk Ann Quirk:

Polls opened around three hours late in Barnstable after an unprecedented start to Primary Day in which the town's ballots were locked in a vault that could not be opened.

“At 4:15 this morning, we tried to open the vault and it would not open,” Town Clerk Ann Quirk told reporters gathered at Town Hall.

More than ten thousand ballots were stored inside the vault for today’s primary election. Barnstable, the Cape’s largest town, has thirteen voting precincts.

Mail-in ballots are kept in a separate vault that was still accessible, Quirk said.

Quirk said she and co-workers tried to open the vault repeatedly.

“I know the combination by heart,” she said. “And we did all the things we were supposed to do. You can feel it kind of click when you know when you're at the right spot. But we finished and it just — it wouldn't open. It would not open.”

That’s when the panic set in for her.

“Immediately I called the Secretary of State's office, and sent them emails, because no one was there. I told them that we were not able to get in at that point, because it takes time to get out to all the precincts with the ballots.”

Several locksmiths with specialty experience with vaults were contacted. Ultimately, the decision was made to print new ballots to distribute to precincts.

Shortly before 11am ballots started arriving at the precincts and voting commenced.

Quirk was adamant that the incident was not a compromise of the voting process. “I can tell you that every town clerk that has a job as a town clerk has integrity,” she said. “We do what we're supposed to do, how we're supposed to do it, to keep the elections safe, secure and real. We count every ballot. We make sure that everything is locked up tight so no one has access to it. And that's what's happened.”

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John Basile / CAI
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Ballots being delivered to the Barnstable Adult Community Center in Hyannis at 10:45 this morning.

UPDATE 11am

Polls are opening now in Barnstable after an unprecedented start to Primary Day in which the town's ballots were locked in a vault that could not be opened.

At the Hyannis Senior Center, specially printed ballots were received and polls opened by 10:49.

Other polling places have already received their ballots or should be receiving them at this hour, according to the town.

Secretary Galvin is seeking a court order to extend polling hours in Barnstable to make sure everyone gets a chance to vote today.

Town Clerk Ann Quirk said that the mail-in ballots are kept in a separate vault that is still accessible.

UPDATE 10:00am

The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office confirms that the Barnstable Town Clerk is printing emergency ballots to be delivered to precincts as soon as possible — likely before noon. In the meantime, the Secretary's office and state's Attorney General's office are asking for a court order to extend voting times to make up for the delay.

The ballot count will likely take longer than expected because the emergency ballots will be hand counted, and the court order will likely extend voting hours into the evening.

The Secretary of Commonwealth's office says Barnstable's ballot problem this is the top issue for them during the state primary today.

Polling locations in 350 cities and towns are up and running. Barnstable, when it gets its ballots, will make it 351.

As for precedent, the courts have extended voting times in some instances, like recently in New Hampshire where voting was extended because of traffic problems. But the Secretary's office says they've never had issues with a vault failing to open at least in the last 10 years, and likely well beyond that.

UPDATE 9:40 am

The Town of Barnstable has issued a statement saying the Town Clerk is printing emergency paper ballots for voters to use while work crews continue to work on the vault. Paper ballots will be identical to machine-readable ballots, but will need to be hand-counted at the end of the night.

The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office is exploring all options available to make sure everyone in Barnstable is able to vote today. This may include seeking an order to extend the closing of the polls in Barnstable, if necessary.

...

8:35am. This is a developing story and will be updated.

Voting day is starting on the wrong foot in the Town of Barnstable. Thanks to a malfunction in an old vault, the town's ballots are still locked away and can't be accessed.

According to a town statement issued shortly before 7am: "At 4:15 AM this morning, the Clerk’s office of the Town of Barnstable tried to open the vault that houses the election ballots and were unable to. Precincts, while open, will not be available for voting until the issue has been resolved."

Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin's office has been notified and issued this statement:

"Voters in the Town of Barnstable are advised that the opening of the polls in the town has been delayed today, due to a mechanical issue with the town clerk's vault.

Early this morning, the Secretary of the Commonwealth's Elections Division was notified by the Barnstable town clerk that the clerk's vault, which is used to store ballots, was unable to be opened. As a result, the clerk has been unable to access ballots to send to polling places. Emergency workers on scene at town clerk's office and are working to remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office is exploring all options to ensure that everyone will Barnstable be able to vote today. If necessary, Secretary Galvin will seek a court order to allow polls in Barnstable to stay open past 8 p.m. this evening."

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Locksmiths from Outer Cape Locksmith showed up in the parking lot of Barnstable Town Hall this morning after hearing the news that the town's ballots are stuck in the vault. The locksmith came on their own, looking to help.

DPW crews have been trying to get into the vault since the four o'clock hour this morning, but the lock appears to be broken.

The town does not suspect foul play and said that old hardware likely caused the problem.

Town Communications Director Lynn Poyant says the town will make an announcement when the ballots are ready.

Meantime, the poll workers are telling voters who arrive this morning with the intent to cast a ballot to return later.

Steve is Managing Editor of News. He came to WCAI in 2007. He also hosts the weekly News Roundup on Friday mornings and produces The Fishing News.
Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
Sam Houghton has been with the station since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.
John Basile is the local host of All Things Considered weekday afternoons and a reporter.