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

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.
Eve Zuckoff / CAI
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.

A vault in Barnstable Town Hall containing ballots needed for yesterday’s primary election was finally cracked open by a specialist locksmith shortly before 8 p.m. last night, after almost nine hours of trying. As of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, the town has not yet released results from the primary because officials spent the overnight hours hand-counting ballots.

Here’s what you should know about what was happening on the inside from CAI’s Eve Zuckoff, the only reporter who was permitted to spend the entire day watching the vault:

Q: The drama started in the early morning hours on Tuesday. What happened? 

A: Around 4 a.m. on Tuesday, officials said, the registrar went into the basement of Town Hall where this vault is located. And you can actually see it's right in the middle of a hallway that’s accessible to the public. It’s this old steel door with a combination lock. But the registrar could not get the vault open. They knew the code; that wasn't the issue, and they don't know what happened since Saturday, the last time the door was open. But at some point in the process, the lever or door handle on this vault was sheared off. So around that point, town officials started making calls to locksmiths, among others.

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

Q: In the meantime, what did town officials do about polling places that were opening up to accept voters who didn’t have any way to pick their candidates?

A: That was a top priority for the town. Officials did reverse 911 calls to let town residents know what was happening. They also called the office of Bill Galvin, the secretary of state, to get some support.

By about 11 a.m., the town printed 500 new ballots and began delivering that first batch to the 13 precincts. People were also able to vote until midnight — after a judge granted the extension.

At that point, the absentee and mail in ballots had all been processed, but all of the newly printed ballots had to be counted by hand after midnight when they were back in Town Hall. The ballots stuck in the vault — they were the only ones that could have been counted by machine.

It was no small task.

“I've actually talked to several town clerks from all over the Cape and over the bridge, too. And they're willing to come down and help us count after they finish at their precincts and in their polling locations,” said Town Clerk Ann Quirk shortly after 1 p.m. “They're going to come here and help us out. You can't have a better group than that. And we have town employees who are willing to help out as well. I can't ask for more.”

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

Q: And it took nine hours for the locksmith to unlock the door. Why did it take so long?

A: One thing this locksmith said is that when the handle was sheared off, this long core that went two to three inches into the vault door was pulled out. Now, in some situations where the core remains, he could essentially tack a new handle onto the end, turn this new knob, and boom, he’s in. But with that knob and core gone, the entire locking mechanism became a kind of steel trap.

So the locksmith tried one, two, three different major approaches — each required painstaking, exacting work. It wasn’t possible to go through the ceiling, or break down the door, or take some other “Ocean’s 11” approach — especially not without causing major damage and leaving the town with a massive price tag. So in the end he used a drill, scope, sledgehammer, and so much more to get the door open, while leaving a small footprint.

Q: It certainly sounds like the stuff of movies. How did the locksmith finally open up this vault?

A: He solved this puzzle when he zoned in on this door handle inside the vault, on the other side of the door. It’s there so that if someone got stuck inside the vault, they could free themselves easily. The locksmith drilled a hole through the vault door, and pushed a metal rod through to hold down that inner handle.

But it wasn’t pushed down far enough for the door to open. So then he drilled a second hole right below the first, and tried — for three hours— to stick in a second rod at just the right angle and with just the right amount of pressure to push down the handle the rest of the way. He had to leave at 8 p.m., and it was iffy whether it would be possible to finish in time.

Finally, shortly after 7:30 p.m., out of nowhere, he got it— the door popped open gently. And the people in the room: a DPW worker, police officer, and employee from the Secretary of State’s office jumped up. The team was able to wrench the door open about an inch until Town Clerk Ann Quirk could come in and open it the rest of the way.

Q: He got in under the clock! What happened to the ballots inside that vault?

A: The ballots stayed in the vault — guarded overnight — and the plan is to keep them secure for at least a month. The voted-on ballots will remain in the town’s possession for 22 months as required by state law, Quirk said.

Remember, this is unprecedented — but it was essential to show that none of these ballots were tampered with; there was a major mechanical failure, but they were exactly where officials said they were.

“You can see from the vault that everything is there. 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,” Quirk said.

Q: And we should be clear that officials say they do not suspect foul play this is really about old hardware.

A: That's right. The locksmith told me he was confident the vault had not been tampered with. This is an issue about overuse of this handle over the last 60 or so years, and possibly an overzealous tug yesterday morning.

Quirk was adamant: everything was above board.

"Every town clerk has integrity and we do what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to do it to keep elections safe, secure, and real. We count every ballot. We make sure everything is locked up tight so no one has access to it,” she said.

Also, officials said they did not believe the delay would influence the outcome of the races but the clerk said they’d fully cooperate with any candidate who challenges the results.

Secretary Galvin, who is the state’s highest election official, said he will be reviewing what happened in Barnstable and he wants to hear from any voter who feels aggrieved.

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

More than anything, some joked, the election process was too secure in Barnstable.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.