Voting by Mail

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 Floor amendment #1 to the senate bill would have required this, but was withdrawn after discussion.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.

Other Issues

  • 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.)

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

Join the Conversation

57 Comments

  1. I hope this is signed by Gov. Baker, ASAP. I also think this option should be permanent, regardless of the future of the COVID situation.

  2. Mail-in ballots from other states are wrought with fraud. California is a prime example, with their hefty voter support from the deceased. When is identification going to be used to legitimize the voter experience?

          1. Typical diatribe, neither unexpected nor constructive. Unless we blindly follow what CNN, NPR or NYT feed daily to some, it’s got be trolling, right?

        1. Heritage Fund, really? Talk about a group with an agenda. How you try Republican Kris Koback’s study? It proved that fraud often happens when elderly citizens put down a second home as a primary address. So this gives us lever to reduce voter fraud. Put elderly citizens with second homes in a different line, and have them pull out an id with address. I wouldn’t want to do that because I could not prove if the fraud with done with malicious or not. I would give them the benefit of the doubt. That is what it means treat all equally under the law. To assume the worst of someone you hardly know is a problem that you need to reconcile.

      1. Please have the voters mailed an application, not the ballots themselves!!
        There are many ways people can commit fraud when they have opportunity to vote without being properly identified!

    1. Dear Cheryl:
      You are correct.
      The voter rolls of many cities in the US have NOT been cleaned of voters who are no longer valid voters. In many places, the number of \\registered// voters outnumbers the total number of possible legal voters. There are many lawsuits over this. Cities and states have defied Federal law by not cleaning voter rolls.
      When ballots are mailed, they are often mailed to dead people or those who have moved. This implies fraudulent voting because the people at those addresses can vote multiple times by mail-in. Also, ballots get lost in the mail and post office workers can vandalize or change the ballots.
      The Web has plenty of proof for this.

      This may or may not be a significant problem in this state, depending on how it’s conducted.

      See here please:
      https://www.judicialwatch.org/press-releases/judicial-watch-eight-iowa-counties-have-total-registration-rates-larger-than-eligible-voter-population-at-least-18658-extra-names-on-iowa-voting-rolls-2/
      Also see here please.
      https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/hundreds-of-mail-in-votes-already-set-aside-due-to-paterson-voter-fraud-claims/2414171/

      Cheryl, there are some elected officials who don’t care about fraud because they figure that the fraudulent votes will be for their own political party.

      1. Why don’t you work as a poll worker if you are so concerned about this so-call fraud? Try and see hard difficult it would be to guess every piece of information that person has to provide in order to get a ballot, in addition to knowing whether or not the person voted. I watched polls before, and I have seen poll workers turn down people who even had ids, like the 20-something year old who was told that he needed to go back to Framingham to vote, even he had just moved back to Newton a month ago. He did not update his address, and therefore had to leave. Who is going to spend their time going around from polling place to polling place and pretending to be someone else? Do not sound like a logical thing to do.

    2. Cheryl:

      Thanks for getting this started, and not in the direction some may take for granted in our Commonwealth.

    3. The GOP’s effort to achieve “voter suppression” is widespread, and those who seek to prevent voters from voting are trying to gaslight everyone by saying “mail-in ballots . . . are wrought with fraud.” I don’t know you, but when I read your comment, I causes me to assume you are reading from a GOP script.

    4. It is my opinion that mail-in votes should be:
      1) accompanied by a copy of his/her driving license proof of residency and
      2) Be restricted only to a person being away on Election Day i.e; on Vacation or in Military Service
      3) In a medical hospital or nursing facility and unable to get to the polls
      3. In a physical condition that prohibits his getting to the polls, and
      4) Received no later than 2 weeks before election as a person can change his mind about a candidate right up to election day.

    5. Where is the proof? Voter fraud only occurs in 2% of all cases. This has been proven by right-wing, left-wing and non-partisan think tanks. When it occurs, it is often an elderly individuals who has listed a second home as a primary residence. Regardless of the motivation, it is well within the margins of human error. In 2018, KS Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) could not prove voter fraud. https://www.propublica.org/article/kris-kobach-voter-fraud-kansas-trial. Pretending to be someone else at different polling places is not a gainful or easy activity to pull off. This has been tested too. The main reason to require identification is to suppress voting. That is amoral, not because it is unfair but also because of the motivations behind it. It not right, not matter how it is spun.

  3. I fully agree with Cheryl’s assertion of voter fraud. However, it does not matter that much in Massachusetts, as we only end up electing Democrats for the most part. And, no, the Governor does not count.

      1. Thanks; that’s good material. Isn’t peculiar that we have to show an ID to buy alcohol, pay by check, and sometimes, credit cards, get hospital services, board a plane, etc. but not for voting [in the US]?
        Allow me to ponder why that is…

        1. Erik, true story:

          The last time I registered to vote I brought several proofs of residence, etc.
          The clerk did not require them or even look at them even though I asked her to.
          She said (I am paraphrasing): I don’t know why we would ask for such proof.
          Also, it is not unusual for elections to be decided by 1 or 2 votes. Fraud matters.

      2. Dee and Erik, in your links the Heritage Foundation was able to identify 1285 cases of fraudulent voting or registration from 1988-2020. That comes out to an average of 39 per year, on the order of one case per 10 million votes.

      3. That’s a long list It’s also a flawed one. Most of what I saw scanning it were candidates for local office, their family members, and campaign workers filing other people’s absentee ballots, some of whom were relatives. I got the impression that the people whose ballots were spoofed were for the most part alive and resided in the locality.

        But get this: Overwhelmingly the party affiliation was Democratic in these entries. In fact, only two cases of voter fraud were detailed in a GOP primary or local election. Given that Heritage Foundation compiled the list, it is fair to ask whether they were stacking the deck. Only Democrats cheat? That’s hard to swallow when the GOP goes all out to suppress likely Democratic voters in pretty much every state it controls. I am much more afraid of systemic obstacles to voting than the occasional small-change meddling by candidates and their supporters.

        Finally, Massachusetts has only two entries in this list and they are both old (and Democratic, naturally). Is that the best that Heritage could do? What are we to conclude from that? My take is that the GOP doesn’t want full participation in elections. Even Donald Trump said out loud that if everyone entitled to vote did vote, no Republican would ever be elected again, and I believe that would be the case. So of course they suppress voters and make it hard to vote.

        1. They have realized that they are losing the demographics game. Therefore, suppressing the vote is a logical course of action, though an amoral one. I read Why are We so Polarized, and it pointed out that culture is ahead of election by 10 years, which demographics lag behind elections by 10 years. The demographics of the country have been changing quite rapidly and I think this year, they will make their appear known loudly and clearly.

    1. I see a tiny number of cases in the Heritage report, which does not match Cheryl’s statement about “wrought with fraud”.

      And I personally would rather see a very low rate of fraud than what’s developing in some states: a rising rate of legitimate citizens who are not allowed to vote due to byzantine ID requirements!

    2. Every vote will count in this election. If there is any sort of mishap in another state, then the remaining states come into play. Many analysts did not think that WI or MI were in play in 2016. Battle ground states don’t remain constant. And even states like MA elect people like Scott Brown. I trudged through the snow to get to my polling place, but a lot of people stayed home. When you lie about voter fraud which is only 2% and tell people that their vote does not matter, then you are trying to suppress the vote. That is not right. Are you going to show up to vote? Why do you want to prevent others from voting, particularly persons who are in high risk COVID-19 categories, from exercising their right to vote?

  4. Voting must require some sort of identification (real id, license, liquor id or physical SSN on hand as last resort) and has to be in person. This will settle the notion of fraudulent activity during elections to certain extend. Massachusetts mail-in voting will only create more conversation in regards of voting fraud that will never stop and it will lead to more fraudulent activity vs current state. This is just blatant fact, once something gets less restrictive – bad actors will fill the gap.

  5. Will: GREAT news. Higher taxes, streamlined, expanded voter fraud, and more violent criminals on the streets. What else have you done for us lately? Oh, that’s right, the THIRD WORST STATE in the nation for Chinavirus mortality rate…at the same time we are standing on the throats of the private sector. Keep up the good work!

      1. Dee…Of course Will’s sole objective, despite his insulting and dishonest protestations to the contrary, is to promote fraudulent voting. MA has been a “vote early, vote often” state for many decades.

  6. Thanks, Will, for helping to protect us. There is a good chance there will be a second wave of the virus starting in August or September

    1. Michael, a person can go to a supermarket, get his or her hair cut, and go into numerous small and big-box stores right now (and just about everywhere very soon), but they can’t bring themselves to a polling station?
      People are required to wear a mask inside any store too. Who are these people who can’t go to a polling station? A 96 year old invalid?

      Polling stations tend to be large (not always), and the number of people in there at one time is limited by the number of booths. If Covid-19 is a risk at the time of the election, they are obviously going to require social distancing in whatever line there is.

      Vote the way we’ve always done it: In person. If you can’t do it, get an absentee ballot. You’ve heard of those I think.

      But mail-in voting? No.

      1. It must frustrate you that you’re going to be overruled so decisively. Ask for extra Haldol at the desk.

      2. Dee,

        If you go into a voting venue in Belmont, you could pick up the virus from the pencil you use to mark your ballot and from the booth itself. When you shop at a market or get your hair cut, there is always a risk that you’ll pick it up there. A rational person will try to limit those risks.

  7. Re welfare recipients required to show identification when they receive benefits – SNAP, EBT, etc.?

    1. That is not a fact! Do you not think your candidate will not win? If the 100 million registered voters who stayed home in 2016, show up or use one of these methods, do you think your candidate will lose? Way to have faith in your candidate. Also way to have integrity by rigging circumstance so that only certain kinds of people show up and vote.

  8. If you take the time, you will find a plethora of instance where voter fraud occurred; modest sample here: https://www.investors.com/politics/editorials/voter-fraud-texas-evidence-non-citizens-voting/

    It is not too much to ask to prove who you are to vote, but then again, I fully understand why many are opposed to it. They are the same bunch advocating for – and granting – driver licenses to illegal aliens to get them a step closer to register and vote. Someone said if illegal aliens were Republicans, you would see our border wall from outer space.

    “GOP goes all out to suppress Democratic (sic) voters…”? Really. Sure, Stacey Abrams is a believer too.

  9. Thanks for all your comments. Trying to wrap my (stressed) brain around lack of census participation (via mail) and voter fraud. It’s our responsibility and a gift to be able to freely vote. How many folks, really, would knowingly commit mail fraud, when so few of us vote anyway?

  10. Thanks Will, voting by mail has been shown to be safe and effective, with the actual cases of actual vote fraud being vanishingly tiny. Please ignore the partisan efforts to muddy the waters and claim it leads to fraud, there is no evidence of that being the case.

    1. Dennis, keep telling yourself there is little fraud.

      Repeat it over and over until you come to believe it:

      “Postal worker charged with mail-in voting fraud”:

      https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/may/26/thomas-cooper-postal-worker-faces-mail-voting-frau/

      Proven fraud cases:
      https://www.heritage.org/voterfraud-print/search?name=&state=All&year=&case_type=All&fraud_type=24489

      Besides which, there is no reason to have mail-in ballots.
      Go to the polls or get an absentee ballot.

      Is that too difficult for you and your friends, Dennis?

      1. Why don’t you work as a poll worker if you are so concerned about this so-call fraud? Try and see hard difficult it would be to guess every piece of information that person has to provide in order to get a ballot, in addition to knowing whether or not the person voted. I watched polls before, and I have seen poll workers turn down people who even had ids, like the 20-something year old who was told that he needed to go back to Framingham to vote, even he had just moved back to Newton a month ago. He did not update his address, and therefore had to leave. Who is going to spend their time going around from polling place to polling place and pretending to be someone else? Do not sound like a logical thing to do.

  11. Thanks Will. Very glad to be able to vote from home. We just did that for our local elections in Arlington and saw a 35% turnout, higher than usual. And so convenient. The only complaint I heard was from poll workers who had to deal with waiting for Voters who dropped their ballots off at the last minute to a dropbox–8pm. This meant they had to stay until midnight until all the votes were counted. Hopefully the dropbox deadline will end earlier to avoid that next time?

  12. The Heritage Institute study looks like the best argument that voter fraud is effectively zero in the US.

    It cites 1,071 cases with a record that seems to go back more than twenty years. That is fewer than 50 per year. Over 126 million votes were cast in the 2016 election, suggesting fraud at the 0.000158% i.e. none. That is just slightly higher than the risk of being struck by lightening (0.000142%)
    The number of people denied the right to vote because of suppression or unnecessary impediments must be a few million every year.

    In this and other public policy debates, we all need to play fair, be fact based and have some common decency about core concepts like democracy, the Bill of Rights etc.

    1. Steve, not every case of voter fraud is discovered or prosecuted.
      Is every case of stolen Identity discovered or prosecuted?
      Most murders are not solved either.

    2. Dear Stiff:
      It’s very easy to vote, and Americans have been doing it since America’s birth:
      1. You register to vote. If your state requires it, present Ids.
      2. You go vote. If your state requires it, present an Id.
      3. Or you ask for an absentee ballot beforehand. In Watertown, you can do it in numerous easy ways. I gave everyone that link.

      No Id? Then you must be a hermit who lives in a cave in New Hampshire.

      You afraid of Covid-19? Get an absentee ballot. You afraid of touching the ballot? Spray it with Lysol.

      If a person can’t do any of the foregoing, do you really want him or her to vote?

      Clear enough, Will, or do we need to spell it out in big letters?

      1. By the way, people can find your voting record. There are apps out there that show if a person is registered, under what party and if they voted in a primary, general or municipal election. You simple input first and last name, and state. The only dupes that I have found so far are usually when a father and son who have the same name, as in James the III lives in Somerville and not in Quincy where his father James the II reside. There are numerous books on voting that I can recommend as well. Also look into Tufts University, which is doing obsteinve research in this area. The last time, I went to a lecture they had findings that Gerrymandering is not as impactful as people think. They ran various stimulations in real-time and showed that other factors diluted people’s votes more.

  13. Thanks Will. This is the right thing to do. It is good to see a state responsive government in these times. I hope the Governor signs this soon.

  14. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    “Later came techniques like “ballot harvesting,” where operatives of both major parties go door to door collecting mail ballots to be dropped off at polling places, now often called vote centers. President Trump and wife Melania voted this way in Florida’s spring primary election, handing their mail ballots to an aide who dropped them off in West Palm Beach.

    Until now, this has all been a matter of choice. In the state’s last general election, in 2018, more than 60 percent of ballots were mailed in or dropped off. Lines at polling places have grown shorter with each election, causing some counties to send mail ballots to all voters.”

    https://www.chicoer.com/2020/06/17/vote-by-mail-not-much-change-for-california-california-focus/

  15. Hi Dee,

    I know you said that absentee ballots already solve this problem, but from my understanding, an absentee ballot can only be used for:

    – Absence from the voter’s city or town on Election Day; or
    – Physical disability; or
    – Religious belief.

    *I got this from the Secretary of State website and it is also on the Watertown website you linked

    If you are working or caring for family during polling hours and you can’t use “I was not in my city or town” as a reason for not being able to go vote, then it seems to me like absentee ballots can’t take the place of a vote by mail option. Thankfully, the MA legislature has realized this.

    Also, you said that voter ID’s should be required, but ID’s cost money and I would take a wild guess that more people than “those living in a cave in NH” don’t have them. I don’t believe voting should cost money.

    1. As a practical matter, anyone can cast an absentee ballot.

      Anyway, if a person fears Covid-19, that is a health problem.

      99.9999% of people have IDs. Even illegals aliens. You can’t get a bank account, SS #, or driver’s license without one. You can’t fly without one.

  16. Will, I just wanted to interject that some of the people who like mail-in voting just tore down the statue of Ulysses S. Grant:

    https://www.dailywire.com/news/rioters-in-california-tear-down-statue-of-ulysses-s-grant-he-defeated-the-confederacy-devastated-kkk

    Meanwhile, of course you cheer these “demonstrators” though I am 100% sure that you totally disagree with the rioters and looters. Let’s hope they don’t hit any businesses in your towns.

    They also tore down the statue of Francis Scott Key. See below.
    Will why do I think that if these people lived in your district they’d be voting for you?

    https://www.dailywire.com/news/watch-rioters-tear-down-statue-of-francis-scott-key-he-wrote-the-star-spangled-banner?itm_source=parsely-api?utm_source=cnemail&utm_medium=email&utm_content=062020-news&utm_campaign=position2

  17. Dee, I can understand your concern about voter fraud – let’s put aside any assumptions about whether or not it is widespread enough to cause an issue and think about why people need absentee ballots.

    Try to imagine what it must be like to work a low-income job – or, more likely, 2-3 low-income jobs to make enough money to provide for your family. Elections are on a Tuesday and people in low-income jobs do not get paid for time off. Especially in light of voting that has taken place during the coronavirus pandemic to-date with wait times of several hours, it is actually quite a lot to ask someone to make that sacrifice to go stand in line and cast a vote.

    Let’s imagine we can reasonably assure no voter fraud with mail-in ballots – what reason do we have not to allow this? It is easier for everyone and increases access for people who otherwise DO have a difficult time getting to the polls – and not just those with disabilities or traveling/away on military service/etc.

    Mail-in voting itself is not a bad thing, and it seems to me that Massachusetts has taken a reasonable first step in requiring people to fill out an application for a mail-in ballot, but also making that application accessible to as many people as possible.

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