Dot's Kain reflects on 38 years of monitoring the city's elections

Martin Kain, shows in 2017 when he was a recipient of the 2017 Shattuck Award for Public Service.

Martin Kain, a four-decade Dorchester resident and senior official at the Boston Election Department where he was well known for his work recruiting and training poll workers, retired from his position on July 31, just a few days after his starting date 38 years ago.

The 64-year-old Kain began working in the department not long after he moved to Dorchester’s Ashmont-Adams neighborhood in August 1983. 

“When I took the exam back in ‘83,” he said in an interview, “I thought to myself that the Election Department has to be the most honest and upstanding environment. I didn’t want to work in a place that was really politically motivated, so I thought what could be more above board than the Election Department?” 

Kain cut his teeth during the mayoral race in 1983, which at one point featured eight candidates and a historic runoff between Raymond Flynn and Mel King.

“We were working six or seven days a week and I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? Is it going to be like this all of the time?’” he said with a laugh.  “Obviously, it hasn’t been like that, but that was quite overwhelming.”

In that era, and well into the 1990s, Boston relied on lever machines to cast and count ballots. “It was this great big machine that had curtains and the curtains would close, you’d pull down the lever next to the name of the candidate that you wish to elect,” said Kain. “And, so, in those days, at the end of the night the people who staffed the polls would open up the back of the machine, turn keys to expose the numbers, record the numbers on paper, and add them up.”

“Now, at the end of the day, they turn a key and a paper tape comes out giving them everything and they post it on the wall.”

Other changes during his tenure include the way people can register to vote in the Commonwealth, a simplified process that Kain theorizes is also partly responsible for decreased turnout rates.

“It used to be that to register to vote, you had to go physically to Boston City Hall and register with a registrar. But they’ve simplified the process much more. You can go to the Register of Motor Vehicles and check off a box and that’ll get you registered,” he said.   “But there’s no effort in that. I think that our numbers have increased substantially because the process has become simplified, but there’s not a commitment on the part of the folks that are taking advantage of that option.”

Legislative changes have also made poll worker recruitment — a big component of his work in recent years— a little easier, he said.

“I remember one time I did a little talk before a seniors’ group that met on Commonwealth Ave. in the Gamble Mansion and before I began, I said, ‘Can I see a show of hands from anyone who’s a registered voter here in Boston?’ Not one hand went up.”

Kain explained that at the time poll workers were required by law to be registered voters in the communities they served. “Now,” he said, “the requirement is that you be a registered voter in Massachusetts. Early on it was also necessary to have an equal representation of Democrats and Republicans and that would be nearly impossible now because the majority of folks are unenrolled. I remember having to ask permission to hire people that were unenrolled to serve at the polls.

Kain said that despite some obstacles, he found ways to recruit poll workers, often relying on civic association gatherings to expand his outreach. 

“Generally, when I’m trying to recruit folks, I’ll speak at civic associations and churches because they’re already deeply involved in their communities. It’s difficult to recruit people because it’s a very long day and the stipend is not a great deal of money, but I don’t think many people that do this are doing it for the money.”

In 2017, Kain helped the city roll out a student poll worker program, forming a partnership between the Election Department and the Boston Public Schools. The effort included poll worker training and informational sessions that engaged students 16 years or older in the city’s election process. 

“We were hoping to expand that program this year but with the coronavirus we’re not really able,” he said. “The good thing about that is we especially tried to reach out to students who are able to speak a language in addition to English because there’s a great need for that.” 

Although he’s retired, at the time of the interview, Kain was hosting poll worker training sessions ahead of the state primaries, and has agreed to do so for the Nov. 3 general election “just to help them over the hurdle here,” he said.

Kain said he was expecting high turnouts for both elections, “but as far as the number or people actually going to polling sites, I think those numbers will be low because people will take advantage of their option to mail in their votes.”

Kain summed up his years at the Elections Department this way:

“It has been a wonderful experience for me getting to know so many people who staff the polls that I became friends with. I hope that more people will choose to get involved in the process.”