There were delays mailing ballots, and thousands of ballots arrived too late to be counted.
Despite that, elections officials called Massachusetts’ first foray into large-scale voting by mail during the Sept. 1 primary a success, allowing voters to avoid the polls amid concerns about the coronavirus and fueling a record turnout.
Now local clerks are bracing for mail voting on a much grander scale for the Nov. 3 election, which some predict will bring the highest voter turnout in the state history.
More than 36% of Massachusetts’ 4.6 million registered voters had requested mail ballots for the election as of last Friday, according to Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office. About 62,000 people have already voted by mail, Galvin’s office said.
“There’s no doubt there will be a record turnout, so it’s more important than ever that everyone’s vote is counted,” said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager for MassVOTE, a non-partisan group that seeks to increase voter participation. “We had far too many ballots rejected in the primary.”
In the state primary, more than 800,000 of the record 1.7 million ballots cast were mailed or dropped off at town and city halls ahead of Election Day. Some communities saw more than half of all ballots cast by mail, as voters took advantage of expanded absentee balloting.
But nearly 18,000 mailed ballots were rejected statewide. A majority of those — or 8,419 ballots — were returned too late to city and town halls to be counted. Others were rejected due to voter errors, such as failing to sign the ballot.
Several communities north of Boston — including Andover — reported 100 or more rejected ballots.
Galvin has lauded the state’s first foray into widespread mail-in voting as a “great success” noting that less than 2% of the ballots cast in the primary were rejected.
But the portion of rejected ballots in the primary came close to 5%, meaning 1 in 20 mailed ballots was tossed.
“That’s too many rejections,” Psilakis said. “These are people that wanted to take part in the process, and for whatever reason, were not able to.”
Voting advocacy groups are calling on election officials to learn from issues that arose in the primary, such as delays in mailing ballots and a lack of drop boxes, with a focus on communities that saw a large number of rejected ballots.
Pam Wilmot, vice president of state operations at Common Cause and the group’s Massachusetts director, said adding more boxes where voters can deposit ballots is crucial to preventing delays. Some big cities only had one box in the primary, which she called “woefully inadequate.”
“We all know the Postal Service isn’t performing at the level it should be, for lots of reasons,” Wilmot said. “Drop boxes are a safe and secure solution to that.”
Unlike the primary, when ballots had to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted, voters have more time to mail their ballots ahead of the general election.
Ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 can be received by election officials as late as Nov. 6 and still be counted. The last day to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 28, but election officials recommend doing so no later than Oct. 20.
“We are very anxious that voters not only receive their ballots early but that they also return them early,” Galvin said. “If they have fully decided on whom they want to vote for and on the ballot questions, there is no reason to delay.”
So far, the process is off to a rocky start. Last week, hundreds of voters in several communities, including Haverhill, received mail-in ballots for the November election telling them incorrectly that their votes are due by Sept. 1, the date of the primary. Galvin’s office said corrected ballots are being sent to those voters.
Local election clerks say they are prepared for an onslaught of mailed ballots. Many are enlisting armies of behind-the-scenes volunteers to help process them.
A major part of those preparations will be checking mailed ballots for errors prior to the election and working with voters to correct any mistakes.
Clerks also urge voters to read the instructions carefully, keep an eye on deadlines, and contact them with any questions.
“We want to avoid any situations where someone who wanted to vote couldn’t because they didn’t follow the proper procedures,” Andover Town Clerk Austin Simko said. “We want everyone to have an opportunity to participate in the election.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.