Massachusetts voters will have three options in the statewide elections this fall: They will be able to vote early by mail, vote early in person, or vote in person on election day. The Massachusetts Senate passed a bill providing these options yesterday and the House has already passed a similar bill. Our hope is that final legislation will be on the Governor’s desk very shortly.
The new voting options are intended to reduce the risks of transmitting COVID-19. We hope that many voters will choose to vote by mail and avoid physically appearing at the polls. For those who prefer to vote in person, we hope that many will choose to vote early and avoid crowding on election day.
By July 15, the Secretary of State will mail all registered voters an application to vote early by mail covering both the state primary election on September 1 and the general election on November 3. Voters will return the applications to their town clerk who will then mail them a ballot for the primary and, in the fall, mail them a ballot for the general. The voters will mark their ballots at home and then either mail them back, drop them in a secured municipal drop box or deliver them to the clerk’s office.
To maximize participation by voters, both the application from the Secretary and the ballot from the clerk will come with a return envelope with postage guaranteed.
What to Mail
The most heavily debated issue in the legislation was whether the Secretary should simply mail all voters a ballot instead of mailing them an application. That would save voters the trouble of returning the application and save clerks the work of mailing ballots in response to applications. Floor amendment #1 to the senate bill would have required this, but was withdrawn after discussion.
Some felt direct mailing of ballots would increase voter participation. Certainly convenience makes a difference and all public officials in Massachusetts want to increase participation.
However, others were concerned that many people on the registered voter list have already moved to other locations. The percentage of listed voters who have moved varies across municipalities, but can be high. As a candidate mailing to voter lists from time to time, I have experienced 10 or 20% of a mailing returned by the post office as undeliverable. In addition, there are voters who move without filing a change of address notice. Letters mailed to them may just sit in the vestibule of a multi-family dwelling. The prospect of a lot of blank ballots floating around seemed like it could create the possibility for voter fraud or at least a perceived risk of voter fraud that could undermine voter confidence.
Some other states do make direct mailing of ballots work and some do not even permit in-person voting. Our understanding in debate was that they have essentially no fraud. However, they may manage their voter lists differently. In Massachusetts, we have a long tradition of in-person voting in precinct polling places. The in-person process gives the opportunity for informal authentication of who the voter is. Poll workers often have personal knowledge of the voter.
In part because we have in-person voting, we have a very liberal approach to keeping people on the voting list. People are not purged from the voting list unless they both repeatedly fail to respond to a municipal census and twice fail to vote in national general elections. One needs to be out-of-contact with the local voting authorities for more than four years before one will be purged from the voter list. That approach minimizes the chance that a voter would be purged in error, but it is not necessarily the approach one would take if one intended to mail ballots to the whole list.
Essentially, the legislature went part-way towards a vote-by-mail system, recognizing the limited quality of our voter lists. A person will not receive a ballot mailed to them unless they confirm their address by returning the ballot application. This will provide stronger protection for the integrity of the process. It may marginally reduce participation. On the other hand, the most disadvantaged voters who tend to have the lowest participation rates also tend to have unstable housing. They will not be well served by any mail based system. Preservation of in-person voting is most important to assure their participation.
This legislation is temporary — it only applies to the 2020 elections during the current wave of COVID-19. We may need to extend this method in 2021 if COVID-19 remains untamed. We will certainly want to continue to study the options for changing the process in a wholistic way to make voting more convenient while continuing to preserve voter trust in the process.
Evolving technology creates many new options, but the last thing we want to do is embrace new approaches without the careful planning and exhaustive testing that is necessary to assure both reliability and the perception of reliability that is the foundation of voter trust in the process.
- The period for early voting by mail begins as soon as all necessary early voting materials are received by the local election official.
- The period of early voting in person covers two weeks before the general election, but just one week before the primary. Amendment #5 that would have extended this period to two weeks was rejected after discussion. The extension was deemed an excessive burden on the clerk’s offices given that primary turnout is generally lower.
- In the early voting periods for both elections, polling is to be open on Saturdays and Sundays for limited hours depending on the size of the municipality.
- The secretary of state is to implement a web option for requesting ballots for voting by mail. Adopted Amendment #3 set a firm deadline of October 1 for implementation. Any form of written communication, including an email to the town clerk, can be used to request a ballot, provided it includes all the necessary information.
- Voters wishing to vote by mail, but needing accommodation due to disability, may request accommodation from the secretary of state.
- The early vote by mail rules will apply to any municipal held this year. (By-mail municipal elections had already been authorized for the spring.)