By RYAN LAROCHE
In 2016, Massachusetts became the 37th state to offer early voting during the presidential election. While many people took advantage of the convenience, it didn’t actually increase voter turnout in Reading, Burlington, Woburn, Winchester or Tewksbury. In fact, it turns out that for many local town/city clerks, early voting was just a costly burden on their office.
Each community in the Middlesex East readership area spent at least $1,200 to implement early voting. That money went to adding extra poll workers, machines, and keeping the voting location open longer (or opening it on a Saturday).
Of course, lots of people took advantage of the early voting period. In Burlington, for instance, 6,000 people voted early (or nearly half of all those who voted). Therefore, the money didn’t go to waste. However, it also didn’t bring any additional people to the voting booth as compared to the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Regardless, it appears that early voting may come back sooner than later. Instead of using it again in 2020 (the next presidential election), Secretary of State William Galvin has asked legislative leaders to implement early voting this year, during the 2018 mid-term elections that begin in September with the primaries.
"Given the interest we are already seeing in the primaries and the successful implementation of early voting in the 2016 state election, I believe offering early voting for the state primaries would provide a greater opportunity for voter participation," Galvin said in a statement.
Unfortunately, the numbers, at least in the towns mentioned above, don’t agree with him. Early voting didn’t increase voter turnout, it merely spread out when voters chose to come to the polls. Is a minimum of $1,200 (what Stoneham spent on early voting) worth the little extra voter convenience (especially when some communities spent upwards of $7,000)? It depends on who you ask.
“Early voting is expensive and I don’t think it’s a good use of funding,” said Winchester Town Clerk MaryEllen Lannon. “It’s a challenge to do.”
Winchester spent a little bit more than most communities and, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear it will get back a lot of what it spent. In fact, many communities may only get reimbursed half of what was spent to implement early voting.
Woburn was another community that spent a little more than most, and its City Clerk Bill Campbell didn’t exactly offer high praise when asked about the possibility of early voting being used during the primaries.
“Early voting doesn’t work under the current structure,” he opined, adding that it also violates the state’s constitution.
“It impacted other departments and it forced us to cancel a City Council meeting to accommodate the voting.”
Tewksbury’s Town Clerk, Denise Graffeo, said she would be watching the situation involving early voting for the primaries closely. Her main concern was consistency.
“It’s confusing to voters,” she said about having early voting for some elections and not others.
In that regard, it might make sense to offer early voting during all elections. The Massachusetts League of Women Voters sure think so.
In a letter to the state’s legislature, they wrote that “(the upcoming primary) is a perfect example of why the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the Legislature should expand early voting for at least all statewide elections, including primaries. The availability of early voting would allow the Commonwealth to continue with this primary as is routine on Sept. 18 while allowing ample opportunity for those observing the Jewish holidays to vote in advance.”
The League asked Galvin to set the date as late as possible to allow voters to become familiar with the candidates after the summer vacation period. The League also urged him to devote adequate resources to publicizing the election date, particularly if it is on a Thursday, and assure the availability of absentee ballots well in advance of the election.
While this all sounds wonderful, it may place a burden on local clerks. With 6,000 Burlington residents voting early, each day of the early voting period operated like an election day. That means the town basically had more than 10 election days just for one presidential election.
That can add up, as Woburn’s Campbell pointed out. He noted that one year Woburn held six elections. If each one offered a 10-day early voting period, Woburn would have held 60 voting days. That would mean 1/6th of the entire year devoted to voting.
So, while no local clerk necessarily loved early voting, many admitted that they’d do whatever it takes to get people out to vote. Some just had other ideas. Winchester’s Lannon suggested same-day voter registration, while Reading Town Clerk Laura Gemme offered voting by mail.
Although it’s unknown if those suggestions would actually increase voter turnout, they wouldn’t cost the thousands of dollars that implementing early voting did. There may be other alternatives that could work, too. Gemme said she’s in favor of trying anything.
“It’s hard to say if same-day registration would work,” she acknowledged when asked about the concept before adding that she didn’t think it would. “I personally don’t think so.”
Gemme then thought about it and decided that maybe it would work. Either way, she said she’d have no problems trying it.
“I would try anything to get voters out,” she admitted.
In Burlington, the town doesn’t necessarily have that problem. Town Clerk Amy Warfield noted that it has only 3,000 unregistered voters who are legally able to vote. Burlington has 16,000 registered voters. Therefore, at least for Burlington, the problem isn’t getting people to register, it’s getting them to the polls on election day.
Whether early voting is the solution remains unclear. Warfield, along with her fellow clerks, noted that the process was well received by voters. Only Tewksbury’s Graffeo noted any issues. She mentioned that some people were concerned with privacy.
“I heard concerns about the envelopes,” she admitted, but added that she went over the process and assured them the envelopes are only opened on election day.
Outside of that, there weren’t any complaints from residents about early voting. But why would there be considering the “old” way involved showing up on a specific day regardless of the weather or your own plans and waiting in line for who knows how long. In 2016, voters had a week-and-a-half to chose a date, go to the Town/City Clerk’s Office (or wherever it was being held) and vote at their leisure.
“It’s a bigger challenge for local elections to get voters to turn out,” Winchester’s Lannon offered, “but I don’t think (early voting) will have as much of an impact as people believe.”
Woburn’s Campbell said that early voting took him away from his other duties.
“(It) sounds good,” he said about early voting, adding that it appears the legislature used early voting because it is operating on “feelings.”
He felt that good candidates get people to the polls, “not other machinations.”
Campbell did acknowledged that “if it’s the law, we have to do it.”
Early voting did, at the very least, decrease traffic and parking on the actual election day.
Therefore, as Tewksbury’s Graffeo pointed out, “it makes sense for elections with a higher voter turnout, but there wouldn’t be much benefit for local elections.”
However, if the state only uses early voting for some elections, it could cause the confusion that Graffeo mentioned whereby residents don’t know when they can vote early and when they can’t.
Regardless of what clerks think, if voters want more early voting opportunities, then expect the state to oblige.