Results of survey on voting experience

This post summarizes the results of our survey on voting experience for the September 1 primary . The data from this survey are imperfect in a number of ways, and the specific stories offered by voters show ways that the vote-by-mail system can go wrong, but the results do not suggest a pattern of malfunction in the postal service.

Overall, my takeaways are:

  • The vote-by-mail system worked pretty well over all, but it is more complicated than voting in person so there were a few problems of different flavors.
  • Voters should use the mail system, but they should always request ballots by mail as soon possible and then return the ballots as soon as possible. Mail delays are not a consistent problem, but they do happen and also clerical delays can occur.
  • Using drop boxes avoids any concern about mail delivery in returning a ballot.
  • It is wise to check and make sure your ballot has been accepted using the online system. Even if the systems works perfectly, it is possible that there could be a problem with your submission — for example, you forget to sign it.
  • Taking all these steps proactively assures that if there is a problem there is time to vote in person if necessary.

Survey Methods and Limitations

We sent an email on Thursday, September 10 to approximately 6300 registered voters in my senate district — Back Bay, Fenway, Allston, Brighton, Watertown, and Belmont. We ran into email delivery volume limits as the mail went out and approximately 1400 of the emails to Boston recipients were bounced by our email system. We did not resend the emails.

The recipients had all at some point corresponded with my senate office by email (supporting or opposing my positions or requesting assistance) and therefore may be considered to be a politically active subset of voters. They may have forwarded the survey to others. There were no tracking mechanisms included in the email so the results were anonymous.

We closed the survey in the evening of Friday, September 11. The total number of responses was 1339 — approximately 27%. Of those responses, 98% were from Boston, Watertown or Belmont.

The survey was written with the expectation that we would show only relevant questions and require responses to them. So, for example, if a person answered the first question and said they were not a registered voter, they would not be presented any further questions. However, it turned out that our form tool had bugs in its conditional logic, so we had to present all questions and make the responses optional. As a result, not all of the responses were complete and logically consistent. This further limited the volume of usable responses.

What mechanism did people use for voting?

In this sample, a majority of people voted by mail and did so at slightly higher rates in Belmont and Watertown than in Boston.

How Voted (Response count)BelmontBoston*WatertownTotal
Early in person283673137
By mail419164282865
On 9/1 in person 837285240
Tried to vote by mail had to vote in person9361762
TOTAL (Voters)5393084571304
*Boston responses limited by email delivery problem.
How voted (%)BelmontBoston*WatertownTotal
Early in person5%12%16%11%
By mail78%53%62%66%
On 9/1 in person15%23%19%18%
Tried to vote by mail had to vote in person2%12%4%5%
TOTAL (%)100%100%100%100%
*Boston responses limited by email delivery problem.

How long did by-mail voters wait for ballots?

The average time elapsed from ballot request sent to ballot received was a little over two weeks in all three communities.

Days elapsed from ballot request to receiptBelmontBoston*WatertownTotal
Count of respondents with complete data210135184529
Average days elapsed13.516.914.914.9
Data was considered complete for this table if respondents requested their ballot on or after July 13 and received their ballot before the date of the survey, September 10. * Boston responses limited by email delivery problem.

Certainly, date responses are imprecise — most people do not have a fully accurate memory of exact dates. However, an understandable pattern does emerge from the data: delays were longest during the early days of the response to the postcards sent by the Secretary of State. In mid-July, voters received post cards telling them how to request ballots. There was a surge in requests then which resulted in backlogs of work for elections staff — the assembly of vote-by-mail packets is very labor intensive. Offices staffed up to respond and then the peak passed by. By mid-August, the turnaround dropped dramatically. This pattern does not support a concern about mail delays. If delays were caused primarily by mail, one would expect them to be roughly the same through the whole period.

Week that ballot was requestedCount of respondentsDays elapsed from request to receipt of ballot
July 13 to July 198823.4
July 20 to July 266420.7
July 27 to August 2 14715.4
August 3 to August 910712.0
August 10 to August 16779.1
August 17 to August 23366.9
August 24 to August 26 (Weds)53.8

How did voter behavior affect delays?

The data in the preceding table show that many voters did not request ballots until mid August, but it is unclear when they got postcards from the Secretary of State. It is also unclear how much difference a swifter request would have made in terms of when they got their ballot back, since backlogs were longest at the start of the process.

It does appear that some voters did delay in returning ballot once they had them. Boston voters turned their ballots around more quickly, perhaps because they waited a little longer for them.

Days elapsed from ballot received to ballot returnedBelmontBoston*WatertownTotal
Count of respondents with complete data282119192593
Average days elapsed7.92.45.35.6
Data was considered complete for this table if respondents received their ballot on or after July 13 and returned it by September 1. * Boston responses limited by email delivery problem.

How did return date affect success?

The survey asked people how they returned their ballot and whether they checked the online system to determine whether the ballot had been accepted by elections staff. This gave us a measure of whether mailed ballots were properly received.

Week that ballot was returned to clerk by mailCount respondents with complete data% of those who checked who saw that ballot was accepted
August 5 to August 112796.3%
August 12 to August 186295.1%
August 19 to August 256398.4%
August 26 to September 12696.1%
Data was considered complete for this table if the respondents returned their ballot by mail after August 5 and before September 1 and checked online to see if the return was successful.

The consistency of results across weeks suggests that mail delays were not a major factor in ballots not being accepted. If mail delays were a problem, one would expect to see the acceptance rate decline for later submissions.

Any number less than 100% is troubling, but there are many ways for the surveyed rate to be below 100% other than actual failures to record a mailed vote. There were only six in this sample who were unable to confirm their ballot had been accepted. None for them found that their ballots had been rejected for being late and only 2 found that their ballot had not been received. A finding that the ballot had not been received could reflect the time that the online check was made or it could reflect an error in using the check system or it could reflect an error in the clerk’s office in updating the check system. The other four out of six did not complete the checking process to a conclusion or did not respond to the question.

Voter Comments

147 comments were submitted while the survey was still outstanding. They appear immediately below. Some voters report specific problems that they experienced involving either mail or the balloting process, although many report a smooth experience. The comments highlight the additional complexity that voting by mail creates.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

Join the Conversation

167 Comments

  1. Thanks for the questions. I was nervous about mail-in because my husband received his ballot and mailed it a week before I received mine. In Watertown, there are many days for early voting in October. I plan to use early voting for the November election.

    1. My mail-in process worked fine but my wife’s did not. She did not receive a blank ballot in response to her request. She called the Town Clerk and we told it was sent out. After a week, still no ballot. A second call revealed that they had confused her record with mine and her ballot had not, in fact, been sent out. It was finally sent out, my wife received it, and voted by mail. Also, there was a discrepancy between her name as registered (full middle name) and the ballot (middle initial). She signed as her name is registered & we don’t know if there was an issue.

  2. I voted by mail and thought the whole experience was great. I was able to cast my ballot at a time that was easier for me (with a young child, this makes a huge difference) and didn’t need to risk being near others indoors (fear of COVID). I thought Watertown handled it very well. I was also able to check online to see if it was received, and it was. That was helpful and provided peace of mind.

  3. The process was very easy. I await my ballot for November 3 election, and will do same: walk it (early) to the secure ballot box at Town Hall, and follow up to see that its been received and recorded!!
    JB

  4. I left the dates blank because I just can’t remember. I guessed about the date I mailed it in — very approximate

    1. I received my ballot, voted and personally cast my ballot at the Town Clerk’s office. I later checked on line to check that my ballot was accepted and counted.. Painless experience.

  5. I voted in person and was pleasantly surprised that there was no line. I had heard there would be problems because of a shortage of poll workers, since most poll workers are elderly. My polling place was normally staffed and seemed to be running fine.

    1. I think the lines and poll worker shortages might be more of a problem in November. Relatively few eligible voters bother to go to the polls for primaries. Even in hotly contested presidential election years. Lots more get excited about the up-ballot contests in November. As a polemical aside: if every eligible voter and Independent were to vote in primaries and in general elections, our political landscape would look incredibly different. And far fewer negative comments about it would be heard. I know exactly how all you non-voters feel (I was one of you for a long time) and I sympathize deeply. But you’re making a fatal mistake by substituting passive non-cooperation for active demands for change. Just sayin’………………

  6. I too guessed at the dates I received the ballot and mailed in- as soon as I received the ballot I mailed it in the next day – I had to call Belmont City Hall to make sure the mail would deliver the ballot.
    I think the system needs to let us know we have voted rather than having to do all the checking ourselves.
    This was the first time I voted by mail and will be doing it too for the election in November. I’m hoping
    the ballot gets out as soon as possible so we can mail back in – and we get a notice it was received – otherwise this time I will definitely be checking that my ballot was received.
    I voted for Markey and you and Katherine Clark and Dave Rogers so happy you all got in !!
    Critical that the voting goes smoothly for the Nov. 3rd election – it seemed to go ok for
    September 1st – would like to get some feedback on how it went with the mail in process.
    Ann

    1. I used the form that Galvin (I think) sent for requesting ballots. I did that immediately, got the ballot, filled it out immediately, and submitted it in the drop box at Town Hall weeks before September 1. I left dates blank on survey because I don’t now remember them. Process worked well for me, but I miss voting in person. In the Democratic Presidential primary, I voted early because I wanted to work for my candidate on election day — but my candidate withdrew just after I had already early voted. That was disappointing. It reinforces my desire to wait until election day to vote, especially in these days when it seems that anything can happen. But I have sent for another mail in ballot for the Presidential Election.

  7. Guessed at dates, did it all very early and thought it was a very well organized system. No telling what dismantling the USPS will mean for Nov.

  8. I repeatedly checked on MA’s “Track My Ballot” through the end of election day, and it only said “Pending .” Now, it is updated to show my ballot was accepted on 8/29, but it was very stressful on 9/1 not being able to confirm this at the time.

  9. I am opposed to voting by mail for any Federal election. This system is too fraught with deficiencies of security.
    Election days could be modified to be more accommodating but one’s physical presence is paramount for securing ire ties of the voting public. Regards…

  10. We also guessed at the dates, all the days are blurring together.

    I would add that voting by mail (although we dropped our ballots off at Town Hall) was great and I really hope we can continue having it as an option.

  11. I also guessed at the dates, but requested a mail-in ballot for all elections prior to the election before the primary. I received my ballot about a week after my partner who lives in Cambridge (02140).

    1. I received my mail-in ballot pretty early but took a while to decide on some of my votes. By the time I decided, it was too late to mail, so I was planning to drop the ballot off. But then I realized I would have to go all the way to Boston City Hall. I ended up voting in person in Brighton on 9/1 and it was very easy and efficient.

  12. looks like a lot of folks guessed at dates. I responded to a postcard and got my ballot early, but then forgot to fill it out until very close to 9/1, so my spouse brought his and mine and dropped at town hall I think. I had no idea one could confirm if the ballot was received and counted as you ask in the survey, and I couldn’t find this info on the town website either.

  13. In 40 years in Belmont I have always voted in person – no problems and no waiting.
    Voting by mail appears to be a solution in search of a problem – at least in Belmont.

  14. Both my roommate and I independently of each other requested mail-in ballots in mid-July, however neither of our ballots arrived. Upon calling the relevant office, it turned out our requests were never processed and no ballots were ever sent out. We ended up being able to vote in person instead. On election day, a number of people outside my polling station said the same thing had happened to them.

  15. I will only vote in person. I believe that election results from mail in ballots will not represent all of the voters. Someone I personally know got a ballot for their dog to vote. Tell me how that doesn’t set up our system for cheating, regardless of who wins. And I know this is not something at the local level, but we do not require ID checks when voting. Anyone could be me and vote especially if I were a person who is known a non voter, which I am not.

    Thanks for a place to comment.

    1. Ballots were only sent to registered voters who requested them. Please contact your town clerk’s office if you know that somebody has registered their dog as a voter.

  16. It took 10 days from when I mailed it to the clerk recording it. I will use the drop off box in front of town hall for Nov 3 election to remove the USPO out of the delay. On the day of the Primary I went in person to my voting area and verified that my vote had been recorded. Well at least MA isn’t like AL where reports of people waiting 8 hours in line to vote.

  17. I get the impression that many people don’t know that you can drop off the mail-in ballots, rather than relying on the (swamped and underfunded) USPS. I hope the dropoff box option, and locations, can be advertised more prominently.

  18. Big lesson from town election in June: mailing back my ballot from outside of Belmont–even from a location less than 50 miles away–was a failure. I got a letter that indicated it did not arrive in Belmont before the election and therefore my vote was not counted!

    Result: For the primary election, I made sure to put my ballot into the ballot box at town hall, early. If I have to mail a ballot again, I will do so at least 14 days before election day.

  19. It was a seamless process and I think the state did a great job – loved that we could check online that it was all received and processed. I also felt more comfortable dropping off at our local Dropbox so that was a great option.

  20. Thanks for the reminder about being able to confirm the vote was counted.
    The drop off option was handled really well – communication beforehand, and a very visible drop off at the Town Hall/Library. location.

  21. Could not remember specific dates. I did everything (request mail in ballot, drop ballot off at Town Clerk’s office) the earliest date possible. Hope it goes as smoothly for the Nov. election.

  22. I also guessed at the dates but the entire process was very easy. I had never done a mail in ballot before.

  23. I requested the ballot early and mailed it early. No problem. However, 3 people I know never received the ballot.

  24. People have risked and gave their lives to preserve my voting rights and the sanctity of the voting booth. I think I can run the minuscule risk of getting a cold by voting in person. Absentee ballots have always existed. Voting by mail should be restricted to only the identified high risk groups less we overwhelm the system and add more instability to 2020.

  25. My wife and I applied for mail-in ballots in late July or early
    August; she got hers promptly but I didn’t get mine at all. I called the town clerk and found that I hadn’t signed my application, so I went to the town hall, where the town clerk herself brought my application out to me to sign. I then promptly got my primary ballot by mail and voted by taking it to the drop box at town hall several days before the primary. I love the experience of going to my precinct to vote (I haven’t missed a primary or general election in fifty years), but in these Covid-19 circumstances am happy to to cast my vote by absentee ballot.

  26. I appreciated that the Town had a ballot drop box at Town Hall. I feel confident about the USPS but this provided another level of assurance that my vote was received.

  27. I downloaded forms, mailed them in and requested mail in ballots for my husband and myself. The ballots were received and we dropped the completed forms in the box at Belmont town hall. A few days/week later, I checked online and saw that my ballot was received. Another few days later, my husband received another ballot. I checked online for him and saw his was ‘rejected’. The new ballot had a note he had not signed properly so they rejected and sent a new ballot. So, make sure you fill your ballots out fully, drop them in the town box and check online (https://www.sec.state.ma.us/wheredoivotema/track/trackmyballot.aspx) to make sure it has been received!

  28. Ellen O’Brien Cushman, Belmont’s town clerk, sent me the link to check whether your ballot has been received, counted, etc. But that should be widely publicized, and it’s not.

  29. I mailed a mail in ballot request form on July 20 and sent follow up emails with copy of the form to jflynn@watertown-ma.gov on Aug 22 and Aug 31. I have not received a response. I also did not receive a ballot. Please tell me this will be corrected in time for the November 3 elections.

  30. Can you share with us how to check that our vote was received and counted? Also, how can I found out about how to help at polling stations on election day?

  31. I requested and received my mail in ballot quickly.

    I did not return it quickly.

    I looked online for a cut off date or guidance as to when it should be returned; I found nothing. So I voted in person. At the polls, one person was leaving as I arrived, otherwise it was me and the poll workers. They were excellent. They asked if I mailed in a vote, told me to destroy mail in ballot. They were helpful and friendly.

    With such high nationwide unemployment, finding sufficient poll workers shouldn’t be a problem. Unless the intent is to suppress the vote?

    The policeman working the polling place, who was hysterical, did say that the old poll workers had been replaced by younger workers (no they didn’t force out the older workers).

  32. To request a ballot, I returned the postcard I received from the Secretary of State. I received the ballot itself promptly.

    It was only by word of mouth that I found out that the town had a drive-up drop box for returning the ballot. I had checked the town clerk’s website but saw nothing there about drop off.

  33. Although I had completed and mailed in my request for a mail-in ballot the day after I received the paperwork for doing so, my ballot has still not arrived a few days before the primary. I decided to vote early in person, and felt very comfortable with the health protocols that had been put in place. I voted in the early morning, and saw only one other voter at that time.
    To this day, my ballot has not arrived – I had checked off both the State primary and the federal election on the request.
    I intend to vote early in person in November, as well.

  34. I went to drop off my request for a mail-in ballot on August 26th. The officials told me that although I was submitting it on time, they did not have much confidence that I would receive my ballot on time. So, they suggested I vote early in the primary (I was at City Hall anyway) and submit the mail-in request for the general election only which is what I did.

  35. My ballot was mailed to me on August 13, according the ballot tracking website. I received it on August 24. That’s eleven days. Totally unacceptable. Once I filled it out I returned it to the town clerk’s office on August 26. I have little faith in the timeliness of mail delivery.

  36. I will follow the same procedures for November voting. The only hitch was that Camb Election Commission delivered the wrong ballot to a friend (for whom I caretake). The ballot was not for his political party! not his candidates! when I called the election commission they swiftly hand-delivered the correct ballot and took away the wrong party ballot. That will not occur in November. Overall as I was shepherding two elders, my friend and I, voting by mail was a blessing. I deposited both completed ballots in the drop box at the Election Commission. A good run in anticipation of November’s voting.

  37. Needed to be out of state to help family. Ballot wasn’t mailed to out-of-state address per my emailed application; it was sent to my home address while I was away, so I was unable to vote in primary. While out of town, I contacted the town office regarding the status of the ballot and was told the ballot had been mailed to the requested address. When I got home, the ballot was with my held mail.

  38. I voted early at the Town Hall and it was very seamless. I was going to vote by mail by changed my mind. While the voting process is not fraught with fraud as numerous studies left, center and right have found (see the Heritage Foundation study which found 1300 cases of misdoings out of 600 million, .000217%) I became hesitant after the deliberate mail slow down on the part of the PostMaster General. I will either vote early or vote on election day for the General. Perhaps the answer is to expand the period of early voting as it would reduce crowds and prevent delays caused by an agency’s attempt to thwart voting.
    One more thing to note about the voting process. There needs to be more detail outside of polling places. At the Watertown Middle School, there was a Shiva supporter who was blocking access to entrances with his car and even illegally parked on the crosswalk. The custodian had to had to repeatedly tell him to stop doing that. He only stopped coming back when 3 police cars arrived on the scene. Preventing voter intimidation, misinformation and disinformation is key to protecting the process regardless of ballot casting method.

  39. I had a very easy time of voting by mail. Several have, for quite a while, conducted all their elections this way and Massachusetts should make mail balloting permanent and join them.

    1. Agree! Other states have been doing this for decades, and no significant problems have been reported. Oregon’s process has enfranchised thousands of rural residents.

  40. The vote by mail system worked for me. I chose to drop off my ballot because of the post office issues. My only suggestion would be that the drop box be clearly marked that it accepts ballots. It only said “All business with the Town Clerk” and I used it but wondered if it was the correct box. I emailed the Town Clerk when the ballot was late in getting processed (according to online source) and she graciously wrote back to say they were dealing with new ballot requests first and would get to recording received ballots after that was done. The following week it showed up as processed.

  41. Vote by mail worked flawlessly for me for both the June Belmont elections and the September primary elections. Both my partner and I signed up for vote by mail for all elections this year. For the primary though, only my ballot arrived which I dropped off easily at the box in front of Town Hall. When she went to vote in person because her ballot hadn’t arrived at the house, there was some delay as the poll workers needed to confirm that her mail ballot hadn’t been returned. She was able to vote with no problem after that. We’re still not sure why only my ballot arrived for this election. Hoping for a better outcome with the November ballots!

  42. We mailed our ballots from southern VT (a distance of 3 hours by car) on August 10. It took 14 days for our ballots to be received and counted. This is absurd. We will not vote by mail in November; instead, we plan to vote early and drop the ballots in a drop box. The USPS needs help!

  43. We requested ballots as soon as the forms required. I was delayed in getting the ballot, because the Clerk’s office misfiled it — I contacted them, and they replied right away, and sent it right out. We’ll drop off mail-in ballots again for the general election.

    We used the website of the Secretary of the Commonwealth to track our ballots, and that worked well.

    I have full faith in the Belmont Town Clerk’s office. They seemed to be counting mail-in ballots before Election Day (in a 1st floor conference room, with the windows open for observation), which is a good idea.

  44. My wife and I put our ballots in the Watertown drop box so assumed it would be counted. That is why we didn’t check on line.

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