Half of primary ballots cast before Election Day

Turnout was 21.8 percent with 1 million votes cast

ELECTION DAY may be a misnomer. 

State primary turnout figures make clear a new reality, with important implications for campaign strategies: Election Day is actually election season. For the second time in as many election cycles, fewer than half of ballots were cast on Election Day itself. More were cast early, either in person or, primarily, by mail.  

The popularity of voting by mail – even in a year when fear of COVID-19 was likely not a huge factor affecting turnout – indicates a new and possibly permanent pattern of voter behavior. 

Putting aside the candidates that won on Primary Day, we feel like early voting and mail-in voting won as well,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director MassPIRG, which is part of the election modernization coalition that advocated for the passage of no-excuse voting by mail. “It’s clear that those provisions which we got passed in the VOTES Act earlier this year, are providing more access to people.” 

But it is not clear that mail-in voting increased the number of people voting – rather, it may have simply shifted when they voted. 

According to Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office, there were 1,053,977 ballots cast, of which 50.2 percent were cast before Election Day. Of the early votes, 45.6 percent were cast by mail and 4.6 percent were cast in person during early voting. 

This is the second-highest turnout in terms of absolute numbers in a state primary since 1990, the highest year being 2020, the first year when mail-in voting was available. But voter registration has also increased during that time. The 21.8 percent turnout is the same percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots in 2018. Voter turnout in primaries has generally dropped significantly over the last few decades. Since 1990, there have been eight other state primaries with turnout at 21.8 percent or higher. Before 1990, almost every primary had higher turnout.  

There’s still work to do to increase the amount of people who vote in the primary,” said Vanessa Snow, policy and organizing director for MassVOTE, a voting access advocacy group. Snow suggested some unenrolled voters may not vote because they feel unconnected to a political party or do not know they can vote. With many uncontested local races, some people may feel the primaries are irrelevant. 

Turnout was slightly lower than what Galvin had predicted before Election Day, with 777,819 ballots cast in the Democratic Primary and 276,158 ballots cast in the Republican Primary. 

Voting by mail was first introduced in 2020 when people feared gathering at the polls due to the COVID pandemic. It was passed on a permanent basis earlier this year.  

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Republicans in Massachusetts have generally opposed the expansion, arguing that mail-in voting is less secure and more open to voter fraud. The state Republican Party sued unsuccessfully to stop the law from going into effect for this election. Former Republican President Donald Trump also discouraged his supporters from voting by mail in 2020. 

There was a clear partisan bent to who cast votes by mail. According to Galvin’s figures, 52 percent of ballots were cast by mail in the Democratic primary compared to just 27.4 percent of ballots in the Republican primary. Most GOP primary ballots – 68.3 percent – were cast on Election Day, compared to 43.2 percent of Democratic primary ballots.