For two election cycles, early voting in Massachusetts worked.
That might not be the view from some of the smaller town halls in the state, where the extra burden and demands on already overtaxed staff meant longer hours and more paperwork.
But for voters who saw the chance to vote early as a good opportunity to exercise a civic duty, this relatively new option was a success, and one that was widely used. Secretary of State Bill Galvin's office reported last week more than 584,000 people cast ballots during the early voting period last fall, which ran from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4, before the Nov. 6 midterm election. That number was a significant chunk of the 4.5 million registered voters in the state.
In 2016, Massachusetts joined the growing number of states that offer early voting. New Hampshire remains a holdout, and is likely to stay that way if longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner has his way. Last fall, Gardner, the longest serving secretary of state in the country, told the Concord Monitor he believed early voting actually lowered the voter turnout in some states. His reasoning? "Election Day becomes an afterthought because you've had 10 of them or 15 of them already," he told the Monitor.
Gardner pointed to the Granite State's neighbors, Vermont and Maine, both with early voting, and said New Hampshire is above both in terms of the voter turnout. He said his state has ranked in the top 10 in voter turnout nationwide for the past 25 years and allowing an early voting option could damage that record.
Gardner has his critics, but there doesn't seem to be a groundswell in the New Hampshire Legislature to change the traditional voting schedule in the state.
In the interview with the Monitor, Gardner insisted New Hampshire's election laws worked just fine.
"We're the easiest state in the country to vote in because we're the only state in the country that has Election Day registration" as long as the person registering can provide proof of citizenship, proof that he or she is of voting age and proof of residency in New Hampshire.
Massachusetts, on the other hand, requires people to register to vote at least 20 days before an election, a requirement upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court last year.
The SJC ruled in favor of the state, 7-0, in a lawsuit filed in 2016 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts on behalf of Chelsea Collaborative, MassVote and several individual voters. Those groups argued that requiring people to register ahead of Election Day disenfranchised thousands of otherwise eligible voters. But the SJC agreed with the commonwealth, which claimed it needed at least 20 days to prepare for orderly elections.
So to vote in Massachusetts, you have to register at least 20 days before an election. But nothing lasts forever, as noted in Justice Kimberly Budd's statement on the SJC decision: "... We acknowledge that, with the passage of time, voting regulations once considered constitutionally permissible may come to significantly interfere with the fundamental right to vote in light of conditions existing in contemporary society."
So wait a few years and things might change.
For now, we'll settle for the early voting option, especially after Auditor Suzanne Bump pushed for city and town clerks to be reimbursed for the unfunded mandate that came with the requirement to set up early voting days. The state is sending more than $1.1 million back to communities that submitted records showing the extra staff and administrative costs that came with the practice. That figure isn't huge for the state to pay, and is only right to reimburse the thousands – and in some cases, only hundreds – of dollars communities had to pay for this early voting requirement.
Early voting might not work everywhere and it could eventually prove to erode voter turnout – as Bill Gardner in New Hampshire claims – but we're liking it these first few election cycles and want it to continue, as long as local expenses are covered by the state.