The decisive winner in Massachusetts’ primary on Tuesday was mail-in voting.
The record-shattering numbers tell the whole story. More than 1.6 million voters cast a ballot, according to estimates provided by the secretary of state’s office. That’s the highest turnout of any primary for a non-presidential race in Massachusetts — ever. It represents roughly four times the turnout in the 2016 primary and an increase of approximately 67 percent over the 2018 primary figure. More than 700,000 votes were cast through the mail.
These results are even more remarkable considering that voting by mail, enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, faced strong headwinds. The expansive electoral reform was signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker only two months ago, leaving a short planning period for local election officials. Plus, in the last month, the US Postal Service has been severely sabotaged by a White House that’s determined to do everything it can to undermine the presidential election in November. And then, of course, there’s the pandemic itself, which has turned life upside down for voters and local officials alike.
And yet, the rollout of the mail-in vote was relatively seamless throughout the state. Beyond anecdotal accounts (more on that below), there was no mass chaos, as some observers had feared. The experience showed that Massachusetts can handle mail-in voting — and the results are the best argument for legislators to make voting by mail permanent.
“It’s incontrovertible that it was a huge success,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “This is not new. We have seen it across the country over many years and many elections. Vote by mail increases voter participation period, end of story.”
Massachusetts, though, has been slow to adopt electoral reforms that have shown to increase voter participation. A majority of states allow no-excuse absentee voting. Here, it took a pandemic to force the Legislature’s hand..
As for the isolated reports of glitches, these included individuals who never received their ballots despite applying for one, voters who didn’t receive yellow envelopes to properly return their ballots, and confusion among some poll workers over how to handle voters who had applied for mail-in voting but showed up to vote in person. (And no, they didn’t vote twice.)
Additionally, it was clear that more secure ballot drop boxes were needed, according to Wilmot. Because of the sudden unreliability of the postal service, more than half of the state’s cities and towns installed drop boxes so voters could drop their ballots without having to mail them.
“We need a lot more drop boxes, and they need to be easily accessible, on a map where people can find them,” Wilmot said. “They should be in convenient locations and in essentially every major neighborhood in a city and every municipality.”
Notoriously, the winner in the Fourth Congressional District was not declared for more than 48 hours after polls closed because some towns were still counting ballots. But this race shouldn’t put in question the validity of mail-in voting — the delays show that local election offices were being careful to ensure a legitimate count.
Despite hiccups that should be relatively easy to work out before November, Massachusetts’ plunge into mail-in voting provided fresh proof that states can effectively adapt to keep democracy thriving in a pandemic. When people get a ballot in their hands, they will exercise their right to vote. That’s exactly what Trump doesn’t want, and it’s exactly what the state should encourage going forward.
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