Despite trouble with mail-in voting, early voting holds strong

“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish, Virginia, USA, November 2014. (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/ Creative Commons)

By Eleanor Ho
BU News Service

BOSTON – More than 1.7 million mail-in ballots have been distributed by city and town clerks and local polling places are open across the state as Massachusetts residents vote early ahead of the Nov. 3 election. That’s nearly double the number of voters who cast their ballots early in 2016, showing that more people are voting ahead of the election than ever.

The pandemic has made early voting methods, and mail-in voting, in particular, a crucial part of the 2020 election. However, the new option of no-excuse mail-in ballots has caused a slew of issues. Local clerks’ offices across the state have been overwhelmed with requests for ballots and the task of sending them out on time to voters.

“The level of stress in these offices is greater now, and it’s not just because of early voting and vote-by-mail, it’s because it’s just the sheer volume of policy changes, and the sheer volume of added stuff to do from PPE to cleanliness to selecting their polling locations, and making sure their workers are healthy and safe,” said Rachael Cobb, associate professor and chair of the Political Science and Legal Studies Department at Suffolk University.

Mashpee Town Clerk Debra Dami said that their office has received a high volume of questions about mail-in ballots that have been slowing her office down.

“I’ve been very busy and we’ve been working diligently to get the balance out the door,” Dami said. “It’s been slowed down by people having fear that they’re not getting it. So they’re calling going, ‘where’s our ballot, where’s our ballot.’ We’re getting them out as fast as we can. There are little tiny hiccups, but we’re gonna get there.”

Issues with mail-in ballots have still been popping up across the state, however. With nearly 18,000 ballots rejected from the September primary race, some people are concerned about whether large numbers of mail-in ballots will ensure that every vote is counted.

Most of the primary ballots were rejected simply because they were late or missing signatures, said Alex Psilakis, the policy and communications manager for MassVOTE. Psilakis said that he believes that voter education is crucial to decreasing the number of ballots rejected on Nov. 3.

And though voting by mail is still a good option, and a crucial one for 2020, there are more ways for a voter’s ballot to be rejected, according to John Fortier, the director of Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project.

“I do think we’re going to see some issues with ballots that are not counted,” Fortier said, “And then we’re probably going see some litigation about it.”

In addition to missing a signature, Fortier said that voters have to be extra careful to not “overvote,” or accidentally select more than one candidate for a position which would cause their vote to be rejected, something that typically is not an issue at polling locations.

“The technology at a polling place will spit that out and say, ‘No, you can’t vote that way,’ or even maybe warn you if you left something blank. If you wrote an absentee ballot, never mind all the problems can be outside of the envelope, you could actually make one on the inside of them. And there’s really no way to fix it because they open the envelope, the ballot’s in the pile, then, [they don’t know whose it is.]”

Additionally, The Boston Globe reported that election administrators mistakenly sent out hundreds of ballots with incorrect voting deadlines. Other isolated cases, like ballots with incorrect precinct numbers in Wayland, have been reported as well.

These issues, however, aren’t too concerning, according to Cobb, who said that they’re a symptom of the newness of regulations that would likely be worked out by the next election.

“There are going to be even more mistakes because people are learning the new [regulations],” Cobb said. “But at the same time, the advantage of early voting is, we’ve got time to fix it. Isn’t it better to have those errors happen when we still have two or three weeks before the election, then it is to have it be on election day and have people essentially not be able to have their voice heard?”

Despite the confusion surrounding voting by mail, Dami said that she feels her office is prepared to handle early in-person voting, something the town of Mashpee is more accustomed to. Dami’s office plans to sanitize booths frequently and has supplied its workers with face masks and shields as well as set up hand sanitizer around its early polling location, Town Hall.

Additionally, the Secretary of State’s office has provided local election administrators with PPE, plexiglass barriers, and virus protection kits for their polling places and early voting sites, according to Debra O’Malley, the spokeswoman for Secretary of State William Galvin.

Dami’s positive outlook trends for the rest of the state, according to Cobb. Precincts are receiving overwhelming amounts of volunteers, making the task of polling a bit easier.

“I actually think that really a major story is [how] many people have volunteered to be poll workers, and how many people want to help out. And it does seem that election officials are having the most difficulty now dealing with outpouring of interest, and they have to choose poll workers,” Cobb said.

Despite the enthusiasm for this election cycle, experts are uncertain if mail-in voting itself will contribute to higher turnout as some have speculated.

According to the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, research says that this hasn’t proved to be the case. Though initial studies in Ohio showed a 10% boost, following studies were not able to replicate those findings. Fortier said that voter excitement was already high.

“Even before the coronavirus showed up this year. Going back to last year there were all sorts of signs pointing towards the high turnout we’re seeing, “Fortier said. “So we certainly may see higher turnout, [but] it’s going to be very hard to attribute it to the change in voting method.”

But according to Cobb, even if early voting doesn’t result in a higher turnout, giving people the opportunity to vote is never a bad thing.

“It is easing the congestion that we could have on election day. We’re already seeing record turnout. I think there’s huge interest,” Cobb said. “The solution to that is to provide lots of points of entry so that people can engage in that demand. So by doing vote by mail and early voting, we are expanding the supply of opportunities to people so that they can make their voices heard.”

Both Cobb and Fortier predict the 2020 election will still have extremely high turnout, despite any issues that may arise from voting by mail and in-person voting.

Dami said that she always hopes for high voter turnout.

“You should always be prepared for a 100% turnout. So, I don’t let that get to me. I just keep going,” Dami said. “If I have it my way, it’ll go damn good.”

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