Is mail-in voting here to stay?

Despite glitches, many see big benefits

WHEN THE LEGISLATURE passed an unprecedented expansion of mail-in voting, they did it for this year only, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that makes crowding into polling places unsafe.

But now, amid record-breaking turnout in this week’s primary, some are calling for mail-in voting to become a permanent feature of Massachusetts elections.

“Voter turnout in the September 1 primary makes one thing abundantly clear– vote by mail should be here to stay,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, a coalition that aims to expand voting access, in a statement.

The last time turnout in a state primary election topped 1 million was in 1990, when 1.5 million people voted. This year, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin says that turnout will be more than 1.5 million, although he still did not have a final number.

Before the primary, Galvin attributed the expected high turnout to the intensity of some of the races, including the statewide US Senate race between Rep. Joe Kennedy and Sen. Ed Markey. But it has also become increasingly clear that the enormous popularity of mail-in voting has also had a major impact, with more than 1.3 million people requesting mail-in ballots.

Galvin told WCVB’s “On the Record” that he thinks mail-in voting is here to stay “in some fashion.” He added: “We have to make sure it’s an option for voters as long as we can protect the integrity of the process.”

But to make mail-in voting permanent, the glitches that marred Tuesday’s primary will have to be worked out. The hotly contested 4th Congressional District primary was only called for Jake Auchincloss at 1:30 a.m. on Friday because of ballots left uncounted on Election Day, largely due to processes related to mail-in voting. For example, the Franklin clerk left 3,000 early ballots uncounted in a vault, while other towns did not count mail-in ballots that arrived close to the deadline of 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Other glitches stemmed from voters requesting mail-in ballots but not receiving them in time. And clerks cited an enormous amount of work that went into making mail-in voting happen.

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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.

Michael Palmer, the Falmouth town clerk, said in an interview with CommonWealth that this election proved that allowing voting by mail leads to enormous turnout. “I don’t see us going back. I see us expanding that on that concept of voting early and voting early by mail,” Palmer said.

But on the flip side, Palmer said, while mail-in voting made it easier for voters, it created a lot more work for elections administrators. “We have to do something about processing these ballots and the process of getting them out to people,” he said.