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. I never received the post card to fill out requesting a mail in ballot. I was perfectly happy to vote in person early at Watertown town hall. I would also feel comfortable voting at my polling place.

  2. I voted early on 8/23/20 at BPL. Rcvd ballot day before on 8/22/20 & brought it with me, unopened, to the poll. I told poll worker that I had my unopened ballot with me & he looked me up on a printout which I assume was a listing of everyone in Boston who had requested & rcvd a ballot & he crossed me off the list. Then I voted in person.

  3. I am always horrified that no one looks at my ID. I feel i can choose any street and number and vote illegally in Belmont. I think we should be like every other country and show valid ID (papers) to vote. I can not accept any results from any election that uses mail-in ballots.

    1. You should not be horrified. You should gets some facts. There are numerous studies out there that dispute the idea of voter fraud. You can self a source from the right, center or left. Additionally, most Secretaries of State in Red and Blue state dispute this fallacy. In 2018, the KS Senator, commissioned by the president found a insignificant number which coobroated what most experts will tell you which is voter fraud on the part of an individual is irrational. It only makes sense in a coordinated effort where a group on behalf of a campaign steals or replaces the ballot box. The KS Senator found some cases, however, it often occur when a retired male couldn’t remember if he registered in the of his primary residence or in the state of his secondary residence. Do read up on the facts. It is irresponsible to put this misinformation out there. If it is intentional, then it is cheating.

  4. The issue for us was mail delivery on Martha’s Vineyard. Our mail service is substandard with mail being misdelivered on not at all. It took two weeks for our ballots to be received. The Boston Elections office knew when I telephoned when they had mailed them and we had to repeatedly ask our mail carriers to look out for them.
    In 60 years of voting I have only missed voting in a primary once and that is the time that a candidate I did not support got the nomination for Governor’s Council by less than 10 votes! Votes in primary elections REALLY count.

  5. We voted early at Town Hall in Watertown and it was easy and quick – well organized and social distancing was enforced.

  6. We guessed at our request/arrival dates as we were doing it around a vacation (and mail holds) but the ballots arrived in plenty of time, and we dropped them in the ballot box. For the Nov election we will probably either do the same or just do early voting in Watertown.

  7. Your email to those of us in Watertown, complete with photo, was helpful to know exactly where I could drop my ballot other than the PO

  8. I too guessed at the dates but know that it was easily within a week of sending in the request. The Town Clerk’s Office was right on top of things,. I worked the polls for early voting and for in-person voting on September 1. Once again the Town Clerk’s staff did a fabulous job keeping workers and voters safe. Belmont is a good and safe place to vote. Plexiglass shields, masks, gloves, social distancing, disinfectant and hand sanitizer all in evidence and used .

  9. We only get mail delivery or pickup maybe 2-3 days a week now, and it’s totally unreliable. It took about a month to get a mail-in ballot, and we did not feel it made sense to return it by mail. Watertown was WONDERFUL about having times available to drop off a mail-in ballot or vote in person early. I was very proud of my town!

  10. I dropped off the vote-by-mail request forms at the Watertown Town Hall payment box pretty early. My son and my husband received their ballots in about 3 weeks. I never received one. I have a different last name, further down the alphabet, so thought it would just be another few days but mine never arrived. I voted early in person, and didn’t check online to see what the status of the mail-in ballot was. I dropped off their ballots at the Town Clerk’s Office when I went to vote, but we didn’t check online to see the status of their ballots either.

  11. I requested, received my mail-in ballot in time for voting Sept 1. However, I wanted to deliver it personally so I dropped it in the dropbox during earlier on the day of voting (Sept. 1). However, upon checking the site to see if my ballot was counted, it said it was rejected with no reason why. Copied from site: 2020 Early voting ballot tracking details:
    Election Description Ballot Mailed Ballot Received Status
    9/1/2020 State Primary First: 8/26/2020 9/1/2020 Rejected
    11/3/2020 State Election Pending
    Ballot data is provided by your local election officials and is updated on this website every other hour. The last update was completed on Thursday, September 10, 2020 4:26 PM. If you have any questions, please contact your local election officials directly.
    Your city or town clerk is:
    TOWN CLERK
    149 MAIN STREET
    WATERTOWN
    WATERTOWN, MA 02472
    Phone: 617-972-6486 Email address: jflynn@watertown-ma.gov
    Fax: 617-972-6595 Website: http://www.watertown-ma.gov

  12. Omitted dates because I don’t remember. At time of early voting, had not received ballot; went to early voting site.
    Don’t recall if or when I received ballot in mail. Had returned my request for a ballot within three days of receiving the form.

  13. I had a terrible experience with Early Voting at the Jackson Mann school in Brighton. Because I had requested a mail-in ballot some months earlier (at that point I hadn’t yet decided by what means I would vote) I was sent to a special “clerk’s desk” (very slow line there). When I asked one of the workers why this was necessary I was told “because you can’t vote twice” (duhh). At the clerk’s desk I was given a form to fill out and then the clerk tried to look me up on the basis of my name and address. She couldn’t find me despite my having voted in every primary and general election since I moved to Brighton in 2004. I finally got a “special” ballot after a lot of waiting and being sent back and forth to two different desks. When I went to fill in the ballot I was amazed to find that some candidate names that were supposed to be on it were not, and some were on it for whom I was not eligible to vote based on my ward and precinct. At that point I was so tired and confused I didn’t ask about. As soon as I cast my ballot and met my husband waiting outside (he too had had to got through the same process but they HAD found his name and address) and indicated the strangeness of the ballot he said HIS ballot had all the correct candidate names. Then I realized that I’d somehow been given a ballot for a different district. I called the City Election Dept. once I got home and finally got someone in an elevated position (didn’t get his name). He had access to all the information at Jackson Mann and said the clerk had indicated my address as “Chestnut St” in JP instead of Chestnut Hill Ave. in Brighton. So I had been given a ballot for JP. I asked if this invalidated my ballot. Much to my amazement he said no, he would look for my ballot and pluck it out and open the yellow envelope and record my votes for those candidates I’d been eligible to vote for and disregard the rest. I was both relieved (I was most interested in my vote for Senator to count) and also shocked that he could do that. What happened to voter anonymity? Well, you can’t make this stuff up. My husband and I have decided we’ll go to the polls for the General Election come hell or high water. We can’t afford any errors on that one!

    1. Sorry to hear this but thanks for reporting your experience. You bring up a very good point about anonymity. I really want to change the laws about poll watchers. I do not tend to shout out my information in a public place like a restaurant or at a CVS pharmacy, especially when people are behind me. I often say my info in a low voice, and the person waiting on me always hears it. I do this at my polling place too. In 2002 during the Gubernatorial race a poll watcher who was behind the intake person asked her to repeat my info. In what universe is that not a violation of privacy? I will be looking into this for future election?

  14. It did go smoothly, and I was unaware until early August about mail-in-voting. I confirmed with the town that they received my application and used the state site to see that the ballot was accepted.

    Some comments:
    – I could not find on the town site information about how to confirm that my application was received and that the ballot was accepted, though maybe that information was there.
    – On the state site, under voter resources, which I found to be quite useful, it is too easy to find out a voter’s information. There needs to be a means to keep it private.

    Thank you

  15. Some of the dates I entered in the survey were just guesses. But I did keep track of the time from mailing to showing up online: I mailed the ballot on August 12, and it is shown online as having been received on August 17. There may have been additional delay before the received date actually showed up online – I don’t know because I wasn’t checked very often. Overall, the online tracking gives me a good feeling about the integrity of the mail-in voting process.

  16. Don’t recall the dates, but requested within a day of arrival of form; received promptly; voted promptly; vote recorded a week after mailing.

  17. I’m in Watertown. I returned the postcard within days of getting of it. The online tracker said my ballot was mailed on August 13th but it hadn’t arrived by August 25th so I voted early in person on Tuesday, assuming it had gotten lost. It finally arrived the following day but I’d already voted by then.

  18. I voted in person on election day in Belmont. It was seamless and easy. My wife voted by early ballot and dropped her ballot off at City Hall, also seamless. I appreciate the option to vote early or in person. Excellent job and thank you to you and to our local officials.

  19. I honestly don’t remember when I requested the vote-by-mail ballot, when I got it, or when exactly I returned it. I just know that I did everything well ahead of time. I returned the ballot INSIDE the Watertown Town Hall because I do not trust the US mail at this time.

  20. I voted early in person Belmont and it was great. Just one family group ahead of me. Clear directional signs. Staff also informed me on how to vote by mail in Fall and showed me the drop-box for submitting mail-in ballots early in person.

  21. I ordered a mail-in ballot about 6 weeks before the election. It took about 2-3 weeks for it to arrive. My daughter then ordered one, but when it came close to the election, and she found out she would be away on Sept. 1, she used my ballot (we’re the same party) and I said I would use her ballot when it came, but it never came. I went and voted on Sept. 1 and they had me marked as having been sent a ballot, so initially they questioned whether I could vote. The official at the voting area said I could vote.

  22. Sorry I could not remember dates, but we mailed our ballots to Town Hall two days after we got them. It never occurred to us to check that it was received. Don’t want to burden workers at TH, but now wondering if we should have checked to make sure that it was received.

  23. I cannot remember the exact dates, but every thing was so easy that I will do the same for the November election.
    Jan

  24. I now live in Boston. The drop off box for Boston is at City Hall and is NOT easy to locate (there are two: one in the lobby, but I was there in the evening after the lobby was locked). There was NO info online about how to find the drop boxes. Luckily a Boston Policeman was on site and helped me. Parking in the area is also nearly impossible.

  25. I requested a ballot at least a week before my husband did, but his ballot arrived exactly a week before mine did. When mine did not arrive, I called Ellen (Belmont Town Clerk) and she said they were mailed the same day, so the issue was likely with the post office. This is a bit concerning, as the ballots did not have to travel far. For the general election, we will likely drop them off at the Town Hall to be sure they are received in time.

  26. I voted in person with no trouble, there was hardly anyone there voting and the staffing and voting facilities were more than adequate. There was plenty of hand sanitizer on site and everyone wore a mask. I do not see the need for people to be afraid of appearing in public provided everyone wears a mask and follows distancing guidelines. Those with medical conditions or the elderly excepted. As far as mail service, we have had no problems with mail delivery whatsoever. We get mail every day at about the same time of day. The only variation is when the regular mail person takes a day off and the person filling in does the route in a different order thereby changing the time of day mail is delivered. If you value the USPS, send first class mail.

  27. I’m registered in Boston, but I’ve been spending a lot of time at my parents’ house in Brookline and (perhaps stupidly) requested that my ballot be sent there. It never arrived, either to Boston or to Brookline. I ended up voting in person at the Boston Public Library, which was pretty crowded and extremely confusing–I could barely hear what the poll workers were saying through all the layers of PPE. I’ve given up hope on getting a ballot for November, and plan to vote in person at my polling place.

  28. I work at an election precinct so voted in-person, though might vote either early or by mail for November.

    A number of people came in-person saying that their ballots never arrived in the mail. Some more people thought that mail-in ballots could be dropped off at precincts on Election Day. One showed me the paper that came with her ballot. The language used was confusing and did not clearly spell out where to bring your ballot when.

    I worry about people taking longer to vote in-person in November because many are unaware of what the Ballot Questions are, what the answers mean, and read the long descriptions on-site. In “normal” times, taking longer to vote isn’t a big deal but it’s a potential safety risk in the middle of a pandemic. Why take longer? Many people throw away the booklets that are mailed in advance. Some of the booklets never arrived because some buildings’ janitors throw them out if they’re just left on a shelf in the mailroom. I know that there are commercials but that’s not usually enough to inform people about the Ballot Questions and to decide how they want to vote *before* coming to the precinct or early voting location.

  29. My requested mail-in-ballot was so late, I voted early in person instead; they made me sign that I’d not received it yet. It turns out my mail ballot only took 2 days once posted to reach me, but had sat unprocessed for weeks before being sent.

  30. Check weekly to see if my mail in ballot for Nov 3 has been mailed and status remains “Pending”. I will return the day I get it. Thinking of dropping off in a ballot box, as am unsure about the post office.

  31. Voting by mail in Brighton was frustrating. It took two weeks to receive a ballot, so it was too late to mail it back. I was able to use a drop box at an early vote polling place. But I don’t understand why Boston only has a drop box at city hall. They should be available in the neighborhoods as well.

  32. Although I don’t remember the dates, there were very many days elapsed between request sent, ballot sent, ballot received by me and although I mailed ballot immediately it was not marked as received for many days. Mail service has proved unreliable and provided cause for worry.

  33. Voting by submitting at the library box went fine except for a small glitch. When checking that my ballot was received the system did not recognize Mount Auburn Street but did recognize the abbreviation Mt. Auburn. I think a better system should recognize both. Thanks for soliciting our feedback.

  34. I did not attempt to vote by mail as I was skeptical that I would receive the ballot in time due to the very sporadic mail service that I have been experiencing. This election is too important. The polling place was not crowded and everyone had masks on, so I felt safe.

  35. I sometimes work long hours/minimal sleep and I am embarrassed to say that I read the instructions quickly, did not notice that there was another envelope in my ballot envelope/a yellow one that blended in with the yellow envelope that the ballot was received in, because it did not slide out of the envelope with the other information. So, I placed my ballot in the white mailing envelope, signed that envelope, put it in the drop box and rushed off to work. When I got home that evening I collected the ballot instructions and envelope that I had received from the town clerk and at that time noticed the official ballot envelope inside. I read the instructions again, called the Town Hall the next morning, they pulled my ballot which had been put aside with others for follow up phone calls, and the staff member I spoke with suggested that I come in to vote early in person if I was available to do so. It worked out great, and I will not make the same mistake again, but apparently it’s a common one. I think that anyone with vision challenges could make this mistake /something to keep in mind/improve on for the national election if at all possible. I am thankful that I had a practice run and that the Town Clerk’s office is very diligent.

  36. The Boston Elections Department claimed they mailed my daughter’s absentee ballot to us on August 12. It did not arrive until August 24 (yes, that’s 12 days for a first-class mail item to get from one ZIP code in Boston to another ZIP code in Boston). She had to leave for college on the morning of August 24, so she ended up having to vote early in person August 23 and we ended up throwing the absentee ballot away when it arrived.

  37. Checking the status of our ballots online was a little confusing at first because our street name wasn’t fully spelled out in the database (i.e., it was spelled “HL” instead of “Hill”). Once we figured that out it was very easy to check on both of our ballots. Pretty seamless process and I hope voting by mail becomes a regular option for voters.

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