Mail-in voting may be here to stay

Tweaks may be needed to improve process

BECAUSE OF THE coronavirus pandemic, Massachusetts allowed no-excuse mail-in voting for the first time this year as well as expanded early voting – and millions of voters took advantage.

By Saturday evening, 2.28 million voters had cast their ballots, either by mail or in person – a number equivalent to more than two-thirds of all ballots cast in the 2016 election.

For Pam Wilmot, vice president of state operations for Common Cause, said that is all the proof needed to retain no-excuse mail-in voting going forward. “This process works, and we should absolutely make it permanent,” Wilmot said.

Wilmot and state Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws, joined The Codcast to talk about the changes to voting made in this year’s elections and the implications for future elections.

Finegold said while he, too, supports extending mail-in voting to future elections, some changes may be needed. He said the process needs to be streamlined to help town clerks handle the work, and lawmakers need to make sure voters outside of the wealthier, whiter communities participate.

Finegold said early voting has primarily been concentrated in wealthier communities – in his district, Andover had more votes cast in the state primary than Lawrence, even though Lawrence, a much poorer community, has twice the population. “It’s a great thing for people in the higher socioeconomic communities to participate the way they have…but we’ve got to do some work to make sure that people understand vote-by-mail,” Finegold said.

Finegold suggested that if mail-in voting continues, more education may be needed to help voters in communities of color and poorer communities cast their ballots by mail and trust that it is a safe way to vote. The state also needs to maintain more accurate voter rolls.

Wilmot said education may not be enough to address the disparities. “It is much harder when you’re in a multi-family building to get your mail reliably,” Wilmot said. “That’s why we have to preserve in-person voting options.… We are all for expanding options for voters and that includes in-person options as well as vote by mail options. It’s true that more education does help, but it only gets you so far.”

President Trump has raised concerns about the security of voting by mail — though Wilmot pointed out that Trump himself has voted by mail numerous times. Before the election, a Boston ballot dropbox was set on fire, allegedly by an emotionally disturbed homeless man, and 35 ballots were damaged.

Both Wilmot and Finegold said voting by mail is secure. Finegold stressed the two-step process, which requires someone to apply for a ballot, then sign the ballot envelope. He called the fire an “anomaly.”

Wilmot said smart codes on ballots and a requirement for signature matching ensure the person casting a ballot is the person who requested it. Wilmot said more expensive drop boxes are fireproof, but this election, municipalities had to get boxes quickly so many “don’t have all the bells and whistles.”

While there have been glitches – like people getting sent the wrong ballot — Wilmot said in the future, “I think we’ll get better at this.”

Wimot’s organization had advocated for mailing every registered voter a ballot. Wilmot says now that the current system was “probably the appropriate step to take” given how quickly mail-in voting had to scale up.

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.

Both Wilmot and Finegold voiced support for allowing same-day voter registration.

“What we’ve done with vote-by-mail is we’ve gotten more people to participate, and our goal should always be to have even more people participate,” Finegold said. “Because when more people participate, democracy wins, and whether you’re Democrat or Republican, the higher participation, the better.”