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)||Belmont||Boston*||Watertown||Total|
|Early in person||28||36||73||137|
|On 9/1 in person||83||72||85||240|
|Tried to vote by mail had to vote in person||9||36||17||62|
|How voted (%)||Belmont||Boston*||Watertown||Total|
|Early in person||5%||12%||16%||11%|
|On 9/1 in person||15%||23%||19%||18%|
|Tried to vote by mail had to vote in person||2%||12%||4%||5%|
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 receipt||Belmont||Boston*||Watertown||Total|
|Count of respondents with complete data||210||135||184||529|
|Average days elapsed||13.5||16.9||14.9||14.9|
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 requested||Count of respondents||Days elapsed from request to receipt of ballot|
|July 13 to July 19||88||23.4|
|July 20 to July 26||64||20.7|
|July 27 to August 2||147||15.4|
|August 3 to August 9||107||12.0|
|August 10 to August 16||77||9.1|
|August 17 to August 23||36||6.9|
|August 24 to August 26 (Weds)||5||3.8|
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 returned||Belmont||Boston*||Watertown||Total|
|Count of respondents with complete data||282||119||192||593|
|Average days elapsed||7.9||2.4||5.3||5.6|
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 mail||Count respondents with complete data||% of those who checked who saw that ballot was accepted|
|August 5 to August 11||27||96.3%|
|August 12 to August 18||62||95.1%|
|August 19 to August 25||63||98.4%|
|August 26 to September 1||26||96.1%|
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.
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.
Ballot was mailed from Town Hall on Main St, directly across the street from the Post Office. From there it took 11 DAYS ! after the postmark to travel 8 blocks to my home. With all the screw ups foisted upon the USPS by the a**h*** in the White House and his SICKOphant minions and the consequent delivery delays, I am deathly afraid of not receiving my mail order prescriptions on time in order to prevent risk of death.
I was relieved to get confirmation that my ballot was received. I dropped it in the town business mail drop next to the library book drop, but was uneasy because at that time it was not marked for receiving votes, nor was the book drop marked for votes. Even now, there is some controversy abt the legitimacy of using those boxes as not sure if they are really secure, and also, if the book drop is still taking books, can’t the ballots get lost in the shuffle? If the smaller mail box is still used for all town business, can we trust the sorting process after we pop it in the box? “Chain of custody” seems to be on the overly loose side… Can those boxes be “tightened up” for the Nov election? By the way, it was only via Senator Brownsberger’s emails that I ever learned about the ballot drop off availability at the library book drop location (much appreciated).
We all requested mail-in ballots before the Belmont town election in June, and we requested them for all future elections. So far, so good! We have received two sets of ballots (Belmont, MA primary) in a timely fashion. The first set was mailed in, the second was deposited in the town ballot collection box. The instructions are clear, and the process is smooth. I did not think to check whether the ballots were received, but I will do that in the future.
The dates I entered are approximate. The entire process was organized and easy to accomplish. Thank you.
I voted in person at my polling place. I would not mail it just as I would not mail an important Lottery winning ticket either. When I am physically unable to vote in person (I’m now 81)) I will request an Absentee Ballot. Secret Ballots are the only way to go.
As a still wet behind the ears 73 year old, I congratulate you. I wish more younger people were as diligent. Also more middle aged folks. They don’t bother to vote and then they spend years after election day, complaining about government! I think Australia has the correct attitude: election day rolls around and all eligible
Australians go to the polls and vote. If they don’t, they’re automatically in trouble with the law. They can mark their ballot any way they want, presumably even vote for themselves if they wish, but they are required by law to go to the voting place and vote. I’d like to see that system instituted here.
Vote by mail is absentee ballot voting. The only difference is that one requires an excuse and the other does not.
Getting ballot in mail quick& efficient. Once I marked ballot was nervous about leaving it in my mailbox in case mail guy misplaced it or didn’t send it on. Didn’t trust so I drove to main post office & dropped it mailbox there. Then thought about whether it would actually be counted in time -since it was a big deal between Markey & Kennedy. I’ve been isolating at home since March so this was major to stay safe-health wise. I’ve never voted by mail before. I still wonder if anyone looked at my vote in time to matter. I’m 69 & never missed an election
Or vote-even the minor ones. This was better than nothing but I’m not sure how it translates on other end. Thank you for asking.
I guessed at the dates, but we requested ballots for the remainder of the year early on and had already voted by “mail” in an election prior to the September 1 primary. We got our primary ballots and promptly voted and dropped them into the drop box. Then as the primary date got closer I began to worry that we didn’t have our ballots, having forgotten that we already voted. I emailed the town clerk to see when they were going to send them and received a reply saying the Town Clerk has received our ballots already. I’m still waiting for the poll police to show up with cuffs for my attempt to vote twice???.
They know people make mistakes — the system is built for that.
I an sheltering in Columbia County, NY, just over the border from Great Barrington. Our rural mail service seems stressed, but coping. I requested a ballot early, returned it early, checked it received. Luckily Mass and NY have Covid reciprocity and I can freely cross the border. I feel bad for the suffering millions following the President’s example of pandemic denial.
I voted by mail because I do not observe enough regard for COVID safety when I’m out in public to relish going to an in-person voting location. It took about 10 days to 2 weeks for my ballot to arrive after mailing in my request, and in the meantime all the higher attention to USPS issues surfaced. I drove my ballot to the post office at South Station and watched a representative postmark it about 5 days before election day, which is later than I had intended to leave it in light of the news feed. I checked online the night before Election Day and found that my ballot had been received and accepted as of 2 days after I’d mailed it, which has given me reassurance that it’s ok to vote by mail again for November. I will not leave it nearly as long this time, though, just to be sure!
The online tracking system only said that my ballot had been “accepted.” I would have preferred for the wording to say “counted” to be absolutely sure, especially after seeing what happened in a few towns with ballots being forgotten about that had been received early, but I will give the election officials the benefit of the doubt that they counted it too.
Accepted means counted. They make sure of that!
According to the Town Clerk our ballots were mailed on Aug. 7, but we never received them, so we voted in person early at the Town Hall.
I voted in person and it was the same experience as I have always had. No lines, quick and easy voting, and friendly workers. I know a lot of people who suggested I get a mail-in ballot and drop it off at the drop off box, but for me that takes longer than walking a few blocks to my poll location. I like that we have options.
I was originally going to vote by mail. I requested a mail ballot about a month before the primary, and received it about two weeks before the primary. However, after all the news about the post office and the court decision that ballots had to be received not just postmarked by Election Day, I was concerned about trying to Vote by mail in November. So I went to the Watertown town clerks office and turned in my mail ballot and asked to have my name taken off the list to receive a mail ballot for the November election. I voted in person early for the primary and plan to do the same in November. By the way, the town clerk’s office in Watertown seems to be doing a great job in handling all of this.
Mail in voting should not be allowed. That is what an absentee ballot is for. Mail is always being delivered to the wrong house and I have informed delivery. In person cuts down on voter fraud and you should have to produce a photo ID.
Vote by mail is an absentee ballot. The difference is that one requires an excuse and the other does not. There is no fraud as pointed out by the findings in the Heritage Foundation, a very conservative think tank and by the Republican Senator from Kansas who was commissioned by this administration to conduct a voting study. Given these facts, there is no need for photo id other than to disenfranchise groups of American citizens.
Thanks for the follow-up Will. Bruce and I requested mail in ballots around August 6. He received his properly; I did not receive mine until August 26. The website said the ballots had been mailed on August 13th. I brought his ballot to Town Hall on the 22nd and I voted in person. I also checkEd to see that both ballots were accepted. The mail definitely presents a few hiccups.
And Will, you do us proud!
I have feedback on your questions and clarifying my answers — that do not need publication. I didn’t, and most won’t, keep records of dates of request, receipt, and mailing of ballots. I neither did nor couldn’t confirm tabulation but didn’t bother trying (not an option in your multiple choices) because putting my ballot in the Town Clerk’s lock box in back of Town Hall (also not an option in your multiple choices) seemed secure enough. (Providing needed options and not making clear that information that few will record is not needed seems in order.)
I voted in person and it was fine. There was no line at it was fast and easy, it was very well staffed and run. I thought it was interesting that the address check before submitted the ballot has been removed from the process.
I requested a mail in ballot. I checked the website and it said it was mailed. I never received it. I went and did early voting the week before the election. I never received the requested ballot. I hope I do for Nov. I requested for both elections.
I feel that we are VERY LUCKY that voting in Watertown is easy. I’ve never had a problem with going in early, on my way to work, and voting. I am not against the idea of voting by mail, and probably, like a lot of other things we’ve had to endure this year, it is a system which should have been updated and shifted in this direction long ago such that it would not be a problem now when we need it most.
I AM concerned with all this “my dog got a ballot” stuff (HOW does this happen?) but I am more concerned with other neighbourhoods throughout this country that face hours-long lines because of disinformation, confusion, lack of planning, new voting machines that fail and have voting staff who don’t know how to run or fix them, shutting down of voting places because they are otherwise staffed by retired people who are in fear of their LIVES because of COVID-19 and a government that doesn’t care and thus force people to go well out of their way and overwhelm the few places left open. Is that REALLY the sign of “great” America? Yes, WE in this area are in good shape when voting but there is no reason it shouldn’t be that way everywhere in America. I know that some will feel just the opposite, but I believe we should always be making it easier for people to vote, not more difficult.
As for the voting-by-mail system, it seems to me that it must have an excessive cost: A) Letter asking if you want to vote by mail (postage), B) you reply yes (more postage), C) Ballot is sent (even more postage) and D) you mail in your completed Ballot (even more additional postage). Can’t one or two of the steps be substituted with email in the future for those who want and can do it? If we really want it, I’m sure the government can somehow come up with a system which is it secured against fraud; what century is this again?
I don’t remember when I requested a ballot or received it. It felt like there was plenty of time for both.
It took 4 days from the day the Town Clerk mailed the ballot to the day I received it in town a mile away. I will try to avoid using USPS for the Nov ballot.
I had arranged with the PO to have my mail forwarded to an address in Maine where I was staying. My husband received his ballot in the mail 8/27. I contacted Belmont’s Town Clerk office and learned that the PO sent my ballot back to them as “person not at address” rather than forwarding it to me. The TC spoke to the PO and instructed them to send it to my forwarding address. I have yet to receive it. On 9/1 I drove back to Belmont to vote in person and drop my husband’s ballot in the TC’s drop box. I will be voting early in the November general election to avoid a repeat. Belmont’s TC office was fantastic throughout the process.
I requested all my ballots back in June, using the “all elections for the year” option. It has been great and I would love to have that option for the future, too.
I mailed my ballot from the Brighton post office on Thursday, August 13. It was not recorded in Boston City Hall until the following Thursday, August 20. This was very concerning to me and my neighbors. It should not take a full week for a ballot to travel a miles. I plan on using the dropbox at Boston City Hall for the November election.
I had hand surgery in late August & my hand/arm will be in a cast for 6 weeks. I very much appreciated being able to do mail-in voting. Thank you, Will, for all you do for us, including your follow-up surveys.
Hi, my application for a mail-in ballot was apparently never received so I had to vote in person for the September election. Emails to the both the secretary’s office and my election office to try and follow up on my application and subsequently request a ballot for the general election in November have not been returned. I really appreciate the state’s commitment to mail-in voting but I am concerned about receiving my ballot in time for the general election.
I love voting in person on the day of… however I asked for mail in ballots for both elections this year. I was really happy to read your post telling us how we could check to see if our ballot was accepted. I always appreciate what you do for us, Will. Many thanks.
I was very pleased with the various options for voting in Watertown. Even though I had requested the mail-in ballots and had received them, I eventually decided that I would use the Early Voting In-Person option at the Town Hall. It seemed to be very well organized when I went there to vote during the week before the Primary. I plan on using the same option for the Nov. Election.
I did not like the process and I think it needs a great deal of study to be improved going forward. I requested a ballot on August 7th. I still hadn’t received one by the time early voting started, so I voted early in-person on August 22nd. I chose to vote early because there was no ability to track the status of my ballot on the website other than saying it had been mailed on August 10th, so I assumed it might have gotten lost, since it shouldn’t take 12 days to make it to my house. When I went to BPL Copley, I was surprised that I had to show ID and sign a waiver since I had requested a ballot (that I had not yet received) but was voting in person. My ballot wound up arriving on August 30th (i.e. the Saturday before the election). If I would have waited for the ballot, there is no way it could have been mailed back on time. I also think the city of Boston should have had more dropbox locations for people who, like me, received ballots late, but unlike me didn’t want to vote in person.
I returned my ballot within 2 days of receiving it to the Town Hall drop box. I checked on the status of my ballot on the Secretary of State’s website several times and it always indicated that it had not been returned. I called the Town Clerk’s office to inquire whether there was a problem and was told not to worry. But just checked The Sec of State’s website and it still says “not returned.” What is going on here??
I was surprised at the reaction of some who posted on a Watertown Facebook account. They were unable to accept the vote by mail. It was so easy for me because I was able to check online that my ballot was accepted.
I voted early at Boston City Hall. The process was well organized and efficient. The poll workers were all pleasant and helpful leading voters through the maze. My main concern is that the waiting line started outdoors. Fine on the sunny day I voted but turnout may be less in inclement weather.
The process worked very well. I received both the ballot for town elections in the spring and for the primary in a timely way. My one minor suggestion is that a sign be placed on the box in front of the Belmont Town Clerk’s office saying “place ballots here”. At least three people mentioned to me that it wasn’t clear where the ballots should go. There is a box for American flags as you first turn into the driveway and some people were confused as to which was the appropriate box. I put my ballot in the gray box but I called the Clerk’s office from my car to confirm that it was the appropriate place to put the ballot. I tracked my ballot on the Secretary of State’s site and that worked perfectly. Thank you to all for making our election process in Massachusetts easy and efficient and allowing all people to have their say.
I sent in my ballot request as soon as I received the postcard. It took quite a few weeks to get the ballot and it was too close to the election date to trust the mail, so I used a drop box. The glue on the brown envelope did not work—I had to buy a glue stick.
I can’t really recall the dates accurately. I requested a mail in ballot shortly after receiving the post card to use. I got my ballot in the mail within 5 days of returning the request card to the town clerk. I filled it out the same day and returned it to the town clerk drop box two days later, on or about Aug 19. Simple, painless, quick. My family members did the same. Normally I go to vote during early voting hours, which is also simple and quick.
I requested a mail-in ballot because I wanted to try it out, but then decided to vote in person instead. I voted early (also something I hadn’t done before and wanted to try out), and i learned that it was essentially the same as filling out the mail-in ballot I got at home, complete with outer envelope and all. I requested a mail-in ballot for the general election, but plan to return it in person to town hall versus put it in a dropbox, just to be sure it is received.
I don’t remember the date, but I requested my ballot very early. It took 13 days from the date it was sent to reach me. I voted and immediately returned it, and it was accepted two days later.
I was concerned that our temporary polling place, Matthews Arena at Northeastern, would be crowded and pose COVID risk.
I sent in the request for a ballot. The general election was registered, the primary was not even though they were on the same form. I called, she said she would follow up but did not. I voted at the Copley library which was quick and easy but they were very confused about whether to let me vote. The website does say my vote was recorded.
I was reluctant to vote by mail so I voted in person on 9/1. I felt safe and it was very efficient. I was in/out of the polling station within 5 mins. Safety protocols and hand-sanitizing efforts were very good.
Excellent survey; take-away from this is that I will now record dates that pertain to activity relating to mail-in ballots and perform follow up. Question: How does one do follow up? What I do not want to happen is for ballots to be mailed that ARE NOT ASKED FOR. Unsolicited ballots are an open door for FRAUD.
You can check your ballot online here
I am a senior with walking issues. I received my ballot one week before the primary after mailing my application several weeks before. I mailed my ballot on 8-24 worried about whether it would get there on time, which it did. Based on this experience I’m very concerned about when I will receive my ballot for Nov 3. It would be difficult for me to vote in person due to standing in line.
We’ve been returning to Boston once/month from COVID isolating in Maine. Requested forms to VBM by phone to Boston City Hall in June. We returned requests in July. Back in Boston on Aug-20. Since hadn’t rec’d ballots, we voted Aug-22, the first day of early voting in Boston. When returned home and got that day’s mail, ballots were there (and tossed, of course)!!
Voting early experience: we got there shortly after 11 AM opening. Wait line was orderly & socially distanced, was a little more chaotic inside as polling places will be. But we cast our ballots w/out a problem by showing ID. I think City Hall was, simply & understandably, overwhelmed by the COVID mess. Hope all is more organized for the General Election!
I was going to email you about this. I applied for ballots right away. Mine came my husband’s didn’t. We both voted at Town Hall. May mailed ballot had the wrong name (for Watertown I think rather than Belmont) When my husband’s finally came his ballot had wrong names too. ??!! Lucky we went in person.
First time we ever voted by any form of mail, but to be honest, there wasn’t that much to vote for since only two had an opponent. We will vote in person in November since this mail-in idea for a national election will be an enormous mistake. Regardless of who wins, the other side will claim fraud and they will both be right. Already we have seen it with people voting twice in other cities.
You should read the Heritage Foundation report. 1300 cases with problems out of 600 million votes that is less the 1%. Many state use this method for their primary and the general. Utah, which is redder than Massachusetts is blue, has been using this method for years. I wonder why Utah has not been brought as having potential fraud issues.
I voted , by mail, as soon as I received my ballot. I thought there was confusion in Watertown about what dropbox to use that would be located outside (v. inside a building) ; so, I used the mailbox at the main post office. I figured we should give the post office practice. The old way of voting in person on one day is antiquated.
There was not enough time between when ballots were received and when they were dues. I mailed it right away, but was worried if it would be received. There should be drop boxes near every polling place in Boston.
As an election worker, I was at the polling place anyway, so voted in person on Election Day (in foreign territory, across the district boundary in Arlington.)
While working on Election Day and at in-person early voting, I heard and dealt with quite a bit of voter angst and confusion re mail-in voting: people who thought that, since they’d received a mail-in ballot, they couldn’t vote in person even if they hadn’t returned the mail-in ballot; people who didn’t know about the ballot return drop boxes (Arlington had three) despite pre-election publicity; even one voter who came in, unused ballot-request postcard in hand, thinking that had to be turned in before being allowed to vote in person (not true); etc. etc.
– Voters seem to like the pre-election-day submit-your-ballot-in-an-envelope voting options: absentee, mail-in, drop box, early-in-person. These should be made permanent. The precinct I worked at the primary logged 70% of its votes from envelopes, only 30% of its votes in-person.
– More and simpler publicity about mail-in voting procedures is needed to allay voter confusion.
– The statutory deadline for requesting a ballot by mail is way too close to Election Day for the postal service to do the round trip ballot delivery and return in time.
– Secure ballot drop boxes should be required, not optional, for cities and towns, with multiple drop boxes required in larger communities, based on population, number of registered voters, and/or land area. I think Boston only had one!
Good points raised!
Thanks for your summary. It is actually good to get some observations from someone who actually worked the polls, and sees the process up-close. Anecdotes and conjectures of fraud have no place in the process except to undermine it. Thank you for your service and making it possible for Americans to exercise this crucial right to keep democracy going.
Please note, I am guessing as to when I requested the ballot and when I received. I did not keep track of that. I mailed it back pretty quickly after I received it. I was able to confirm the ballot was received.
I got a notification via Mr. Galvin’s office weeks before Sept. 1st. I filled it in and after a few more weeks got my ballot mailed to be. The ballot was for the Green party and had no candidates names on it. I wanted to vote in the Markey-Kennedy contest so I didn’t fill out or mail that ballot. I waited for Sept 1st and voted in person. No problem. But I noticed they had me registered there as a Democrat. So why did the Secretary of State’s office mail me a Green party ballot? Technically I suppose it would have been possible to write in several names on that ballot. But the spaces provided for write-ins were miniscule. And I don’t know if write ins extending outside the allowed spaces would be accepted. Anyway I would have needed to do some research to learn who was running for which offices, since none of that info was given on the Green ballot. Just seems strange to me.
Green party ballot?
I had asked for an absentee ballot for all elections this year and got my ballot for the primary shortly after the ballots were available to the Boston Elections Department. I filled it out and and mailed it in immediately. I was subsequently pleased to learn that one can confirm a ballot’s receipt on-line via the Elections Division at the Secretary of State’s website, under “Track my Ballot.” Great option, great system, and no threat of fraud – despite messaging to the contrary.
I handed my ballot application directly to the letter carrier. The application was never processed so I had to vote in person. I don’t know why it wasn’t processed.
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