MIDDLESEX - It’s a question increasingly fielded these days by town and city clerks: Where is my mail-in ballot for the presidential election?
For the first time in Massachusetts’ history, registered voters are being allowed without exception to cast ballots in state elections by mail for the 2020 calendar year. Considered by proponents as a mere expansion of the absentee balloting process, which allows those traveling overseas or hospitalized to vote early upon request, state lawmakers in early July extended the ballot by-mail system to all registered voters in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the presidential races already generating more voter interest than any other type of election — in most cases even those involving tax increases and debt increases under Proposition 2 and 1/2— local elections officials like Town Clerk Maria Sagarino and Town Clerk William Campbell expect record high participating rates given the number of inquires they’re receiving about mail-in ballot requests.
So just where are those ballots? They’re still being printed, responded the local officials, explaining that Secretary of State William Galvin has to create community-specific ballots based upon September’s primary races and first ensure traditional absentee ballots are sent out.
“We’re supposed to get them by Oct. 5,” Sagarino explained in a recent phone interview. “I just got my proof for the ballot I send to overseas voters. As [the Secretary of State] prints them they’ll get sent out to communities.”
“There are something like 700 different ballots for [the various precincts in] cities and towns in Massachusetts, and the secretary’s office has to wait until [the primary race results are finalized]. Then there’s proofing [each of the sample ballots for errors] before they’re put on order to print and sent out,” Campbell later remarked in a separate conversation with The Middlesex East.
Though voting by-mail has proven wildly convenient for voters, they same can’t be said for those employed in town and city clerk offices across the state, where managing elections is largely viewed as a part-time job.
Specifically, as elections officers deal with their own COVID-19 workplace restrictions, the new ballot by mail system is being unveiled this year in addition to mandatory expanded early voting sessions, which in most Middlesex East communities, must be offered for a minimum of two weeks — including weekends.
“As best we can,” answered Woburn’s city clerk, when asked how he’s handling the extra election responsibilities in the middle of a pandemic. “There are so many angles and moving parts. I was speaking to a colleague [recently] and this year, I think we have almost 30-days of running elections. That’s not getting ready for the elections, that’s just for conducting them.”
Meanwhile, the expansion in voting is being unveiled at a time when there is growing controversy over the propriety of allowing citizens to cast their ballots early by mail, as President Donald Trump and election purists say the option increases the chance for fraudulent votes to be cast.
On the other side of the spectrum, proponents of the alternative voting method have suggested that the sitting president and his supporters are trying to suppress turnout by “defunding” the US Postal Service and finding ways to reject ballots that are mailed into elections officials too late.
When added to a bitterly divisive culture in Washington D.C., where the rhetoric has reached levels of hysteria that include wild claims that each political party plans to “steal” the election, it perhaps makes sense that many are apprehensive about why they haven’t yet received their requested ballots.
And though declining to wander into the larger political fray, both Sagarino and Campbell assured voters that they’re working harder than ever to make sure each vote is properly counted in accordance with state election laws.
“I’d just ask for voters to be patient. Ballots will be mailed out as soon as we get them. There’s still plenty of time before the election to get them back and forth [from City Hall],” said Campbell, who pointed out that voters can drop-off completed mail-in ballots at his office at any point before the polls close at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
“In Massachusetts, we seem to handle elections much better than some other states. It’s hard as a town clerk in Mass., because people watch the news and [get concerned] after seeing what is happening in other states. But we have different laws here. It’s handled differently.”
So far, based upon primary election results from last September, the new mail-in voting alternative is proving wildly successful in the immediate region.
For example, according to Reading Town Clerk Laura Gemme, who managed the monumental feat of counting some 13,000 ballots for both the primary and a local election in early September, more than half of all Reading voters participated in the pair of Sept. 1 contests.
Prior to the primary, nearly 8,300 Reading residents requested a mail-in ballot, and just over 5,420 of them were returned. Another 1,282 voters cast their ballots by taking advantage of the state’s early in-person voting options.
All told, that means 66 percent of those who cast a ballot in the state primary did so before the Sept. 1 election day, when 3,131 citizens headed to the community’s central polling station.
“Gemme anticipates that turnout will be even higher for the presidential election,” a prepared statement released last week by her office explained.
In neighboring Stoneham, which has a total of 17,000 registered voters, more than a third of those residents, or about 6,000 voters, have already asked for a mail-in ballot for the presidential election on Nov. 3.
Already, that number of requests exceeds the total number of individuals who tried Massachusetts’ first experiment with early in-person voting in 2016, when 4,700 people cast an early ballot in Stoneham Town Hall.
“I think COVID-19 has caused all of this mail-in activity,” said the town clerk, who speculated the option would not be as popular without the pandemic. “People liked being able to walk in and vote early, so I think we would have seen more of that.”
Like his colleagues, Campbell also expects a record turnout for the presidential election, which will also feature a handful of other state and federal races and two statewide citizen referendum questions.
Basing his predictions off of voter activity in the state primary, the Woburn elections’ officer explained that normally, around 20 percent of the electorate cast a ballot in primary elections with presidential races. But last September, nearly twice-as-many voters turned out to Woburn’s various polling stations.
“I figure we’ll get around 12,000 [people voting by mail-in ballots]. We already have about 8,000 applications on file,” said Campbell.
Besides the opportunity to cast a ballot in-person at the polls on Nov. 3, voters in each Massachusetts community will also again have the chance for early in-person voting between Oct. 17 and Oct. 30 during normal office hours for their respective town and city clerks.
With early voting requirements based upon voting population sizes, most Middlesex East area communities will also hold in-person sessions during special hours for two consecutive weekends on Oct. 17 and Oct. 18 and Oct. 24 and Oct. 25. Citizens should check with their local town or city clerk’s office for specific hours of operation for those weekend sessions.
“Nothing has changed with early voting per say, but for the last go-round in 2016, the weekends weren’t mandatory. This time around, they are,” explained Sagarino.
Counting the vote
With COVID-19 causing most states to rethink normal prohibitions on mail-in votes, there has been some speculation that it could take days if not weeks to count all the ballots — especially if the postal service is late in delivering votes with a valid postmark of Nov. 3.
News of the potential election day wrinkle, which some political pundits claim could lead to a constitutional crisis, has certainly led to questions as to whether Massachusetts could be the site of such a tabulation controversy.
Though dismissing the idea that their offices will not be able to count all of the ballots received by election day on Nov. 3 — which should presumably include the vast majority of votes being cast — both Campbell and Sagarino admitted that final results technically won’t be tallied until Nov. 6.
Specifically, based on the special voting act passed by state legislators in July, all election officials in the state will be required to count any ballot received within three days after the polls close. However, the allowance for postal service delays also includes the stipulation that all such ballots include a valid postmark of Nov. 3 or earlier.
“It is going to take days, because the legislature included a provision for any ballot received before Nov. 6 to be counted,” Campbell explained matter-of-factly. “[The state] hasn’t set up a procedure for that yet, but by the nature of the legislation, it will just take longer.”
According to both Campbell and Sagarino, despite that allowance, they consider it extremely unlikely that an influx of post Nov. 3 ballots will dramatically effect local election results. Basing their assumptions off of the September state primary voting trends, when only a handful of mail-in forms came into their offices past the deadline, they believe the vast majority of voters will have submitted their ballots by the close of the polls on election night.
In order to prevent potential election day counting issues, state authorities are also allowing local town and city clerks to pre-process early votes up to nine days early in one of two ways.
Under the first method, likely to be used in Stoneham, chief elections officers can open ballots early and run them through a voting tabulator — after sorting them by precinct. In doing so, according to an Aug. 18 advisory published by the Secretary of State, cities and towns must promise those early ballots will not be totaled up and printed until the polls close on Nov. 3.
Under the second approach, which was utilized by Campbell for the state primary elections in September, city and town clerks can remove mail-in ballots from their envelopes prior to election day and then re-secure the votes for tabulation on election day.
According to Campbell, who with multiple polling stations prefers that all votes be counted on the same day, the first option ensures that already overworked poll workers don’t have to manage the tasks of pulling open, recording, and feeding into voting machines each sealed ballot.
Those who suspect local clerks are exaggerating the amount of effort it takes to open a ballot and feed it into a machine need only to refer to the Aug. 18 election advisory sent out by Galvin. Specifically containing an explanation of the unsealing process and a description of the statutes that underly the special voting act, the guidance contains 12 pages of text with mandates such as:
• A requirement to post advanced legal notices and advertisements to let the public know about the pre-processing option chosen;
• A requirement that each inner-envelope with the ballot be checked to be sure affidavits have been “properly executed”;
• Rules for rejecting ballots, notifying voters about such incidents, and stipulations regarding how those “defective” submissions will be stored;
• An explanation of how ballots should be cross-checked against easy voting lists;
• Procedures for handling ballots that are rejected by voting machines;
• And various other record-keeping, secure storage, and public notification and access requirements.