Election Security

The September 1 primary election approaches and with concerns raised nationwide about election integrity, it is worth understanding how robust the process in Massachusetts is.

Most of us take the elections process for granted – one receives a ballot, one votes, and one leaves.  It seems simple enough for a voter, and that is one of the two main design goals of the election process – to make it easy to vote. 

But for election officials, the process is much more complicated, with a careful accounting for ballots at every step of the process.  That complexity serves the second design goal of the election process:  To make it transparently reliable. 

The Secretary of State manages the printing of ballots for each precinct in the state but the local city or town election official is responsible for running the election.  

Two precincts in the same municipality could have different ballots because they could have different district officers – state legislators, representatives in congress, governor’s councilors. The Secretary of State delivers to each municipal election official a specific number of blank ballots for each ballot style within their community.  The election official must then account for each of those ballots at each subsequent stage of the election process.   

The election official delivers or arranges for a police officer acting on their behalf to deliver a pre-determined number of ballots to each polling place.  The warden running that voting precinct must then start the day by counting and confirming the number of ballots received. 

As voters arrive in person and check in, their names are checked off on a copy of the voting list.  The voting list contains the list of names and whether each voter has requested an absentee ballot, early voting ballot or vote by mail ballot for that election.  These codes assure that a voter who checks in but has already voted absentee does not get to vote again.   On the other hand, if the absentee ballot has not been received back, the voter will be permitted to vote.

Throughout the day the warden will receive absentee ballots that have been returned by voters; the ballots are in envelopes bearing the name and signature of the voter.  The Warden or Clerk, acting as proxy for the voter, reads each name and address so the check-in list can be marked. Then these envelopes are flipped over to preserve the secrecy of the ballot, sliced open, and the ballots are fed into the vote tabulator. 

The count of absentee ballots received and voted throughout the day is added to the number of original count of blank ballots for the end of night reconciliation of total ballots received, total ballots voted and remaining blank ballots.

The early voting by mail process adds another wrinkle.  Because so many people are voting by mail early and the handling of early or absentee ballots adds a lot of work to the election day, the legislature authorized advance tabulation of all early ballots.   

Before an election official tabulates early ballots in their central office, the election official must post a notice for the public and permit the public to observe.  They sort the envelopes by precinct and handle them essentially as they would on election day, feeding the ballots into a vote tabulator containing the software coding for each specific precinct.  Only after the polls close on Election Day can the vote tabulator total the early vote results. 

In case of doubt whether an early ballot has been received for counting,  voters can check online at  www.trackmyballotma.com .   

Your local election officials have a greatly expanded workload this year due to the need to both prepare and receive back the complex early voting packets.  At the same time, they are offering additional hours for in-person early voting, including mandatory hours on both Saturday and Sunday.  They know the importance of the work they do and are proud to do it.  We should all be grateful for their dedication to assuring convenient and accurate elections for all Massachusetts voters. 


Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

3 replies on “Election Security”

  1. Interesting. What I don’t see are checks against the officials, e.g. the warden or clerk, being compromised. Not that I think that’s happening here. It only reminds me of when I was a kid growing up in Nova Scotia when my mom volunteered to count ballots. At that time at least, they’d have volunteers representing the three major parties count together until they agreed the count was legit.

    But Canadian ballots are much simpler. They had no machines (or Russians who cared how we voted). It was all just slips of paper with names and check marks. When I voted seems to me the ballot only had the three names for the seat’s MP. I went behind a cardboard divider on a table that had pencils on it, checked off a name and dropped in in a cardboard box, as I recall it. No lines either. I walked into the building, they pointed out the table with ballots and pencils and I did it.

    I can’t remember now when we voted for provincial and local offices. Maybe it wasn’t during the federal election. I don’t recall ever researching the local people, whereas I spent a good deal of time checking up on my MP’s voting record and asking the opposing candidate party offices what there positions were. Lot of good that did, since every time voted for the NDP no matter what. Though if I hadn’t left before she ran maybe I would have voted for Elizabeth May.

  2. Dear Will,

    In Boston, the early voting ballots will not be pre-tabulated at City Hall. They will be distributed on Election Day to the polling locations where the local poll workers will open the envelops and put the ballots into the scanning machine. All ballots, including absentee ballots, will be tabulated on Election Day at the local polling location.
    For verification of this fact, please see the Training Manual or call the Election Department.

    In addition, some polling locations have changed, so voters should not always go to their usual polling place. For ex., Ward 4 precincts 5, 6, 7, & 8 have all been moved to Matthews Arena on St. Botolph St.

    Andrea Olmstead
    Warden, Ward 4 Precinct 7

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