Voting reforms reinvigorated democracy

Room for improvement, but in general they worked

AT THE START of July, the Legislature passed a landmark bill to expand early voting, implement a secure vote-by-mail system, and strengthen safety measures for in-person voting. Tuesday’s primary was the first major test of these important reforms. They worked.

More people voted in this year’s state primary than ever before. According to preliminary data, over 1.6 million voters cast ballots, totaling more than a third of all registered voters. In recent state primaries, fewer than 1 million voters have showed up at the polls, with voter participation rates mired in the teens and low twenties. This year, several competitive races for Congress helped increase voter participation, but the high turnout was also a product of Massachusetts’ new election laws. In the face of an ongoing pandemic, Massachusetts did not simply protect voting rights—we reinvigorated our democracy.

The Legislature’s voting reforms gave voters several different ways to cast their ballot. For the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, voters had the choice to vote by mail, to vote in person during a week-long early voting window, or to vote in person on the day of the election. The intent was to empower voters to vote in a way that worked best for them, and it is clear that people availed themselves of the opportunity. Over 1 million people requested mail-in ballots, 180,000 people voted during early voting, and hundreds of thousands more went to the polls on election day. While the vast majority of people who requested a mail-in ballot were able to return it successfully, voters still had the ability to vote in person if they encountered difficulties in the vote-by-mail process.

Thanks to the hard work of Secretary of State William Galvin and local election officials across the Commonwealth, the new voting procedures were implemented in a methodical and accountable manner without compromising the security of our election system. Voters could track when their local clerk sent out mail-in ballots and whether the clerk had received their completed ballots. Additionally, voters had to sign an affidavit on their mail-in ballot in order to ensure the validity and integrity of the election. Furthermore, as required by the Legislature’s new voting law, municipalities that modified polling locations provided public notice well in advance of election day. After the polls closed on September 1, election officials counted results in a transparent, accurate, and largely efficient process.

There certainly is still room for improvement. Too many voters never received the mail-in ballots that they requested or received them without enough time to mail them back. Establishing ballot drop box sites helped voters make sure that their ballot got counted, but this could be done sooner next time. There also was some confusion when people who had been sent a mail-in ballot showed up to vote in person on election day; training poll workers on the nuances of the new election procedures would help make the process run more smoothly. We also should consider expediting voter check-in lines on election day and making it easier for clerks to tabulate early vote ballots.

Meet the Author

Barry Finegold

State senator from Andover, Massachusetts Legislature
Meet the Author

John Lawn

State senator from Watertown, Massachusetts House of Representatives
These challenges aside, Massachusetts’ new voting laws helped ensure that people could vote as safely and easily as possible. These voting reforms were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature and enacted by Gov. Charlie Baker, and we look forward to continuing to work on this issue in a bipartisan manner going forward. Massachusetts can build on the progress it has already made and revitalize our democratic institutions.

Sen. Barry  Finegold of Andover and Rep. John Lawn of Watertown are the chairs of the Joint Committee on Election Laws in the Massachusetts Legislature.