Voting is at the heart of our mission. That is why we, the League of Women Voters of Falmouth, in furtherance of our commitment to voter education, have prepared this survey of the new voting options that will become available this fall. The national LWV was founded 100 years ago, shortly before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which made women’s suffrage the law of the land. Today, league membership is open to both women and men. Through the ensuing 100 years the league, at the national, state, and local levels, has strived to educate voters and also has advocated for voting laws to protect that right.
Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we in Massachusetts face a new threat to voting. It is crucial to ensure that we will not be forced to choose between our health and the exercise of our precious voting rights in the upcoming primary on September 1 and the general election on November 3. The Massachusetts Legislature, having recognized the danger, passed An Act Relative to Voting Options in Response to COVID-19 (H. 4820), and Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. signed it. This bill was strongly supported by the Massachusetts League of Women Voters. While town clerks’ offices will still be under substantial pressure, we are hopeful that this new law will put the 2020 primary and the general election on reasonably firm ground.
For the fall 2020 primary and general election, the new law will:
- Facilitate mail-in early voting
- Update absentee voting
- Introduce a new computerized method for obtaining a ballot
- Provide in-person early voting
- Relax rules for polling place operations
- Modernize ballot counting
Obtaining Ballot Applications
Early voting by mail will be permitted in the fall, and systems have been established to facilitate the application process. Most importantly, before the primary and general election, the secretary of state is required to automatically send applications for early voting ballots to all registered voters in Massachusetts with prepaid postage for returning the applications to town clerks. This mailing was supposed to go out no later than July 15 for the primary and no later than Monday, September 14, for the general election, using July 1 registration lists for the primary and September 1 registration lists for the general election. However, it appears that for voters registered on July 1, the application for the general election has been combined with the application for the primary so that one application form is serving both purposes. Where voters receive mail at an address different from their street address, the mailing address is to be used. Applications also can be accessed on websites or requested directly from the town clerk’s office. Please note that a written request for a ballot is sufficient if it is signed, regardless of whether the voter uses an approved application form.
In addition, applications for early voting ballots must be sent automatically by town clerks to those voters who register or who change their registration addresses after the cutoff dates for the secretary of state’s automatic mailing but before registration closes 10 days before the primary or general election. For the September 1 primary, you may register or change your registration on or before Saturday, August 22, and for the November 3 general election you may register or change your registration on or before Saturday, October 24.
Once you get and complete your ballot application, you can return it by mail or electronically. Applications for ballots to vote in the September 1 primary must be received by the town clerk’s office on Wednesday, August 26, before 5 PM. For the November 3 general election, applications must be received on Wednesday, October 28, before 5 PM.
The application is only the first step. To vote, you need the actual ballot. A ballot with a postage-paid return envelope will be sent to you after your application is processed by the town clerk’s office. You will then be required to return the completed ballot to the town clerk’s office. You can do so in person, or by mailing the ballot in the postage-paid envelope you receive, or by depositing it in a secured municipal lockbox. With one exception, delivery of the ballot by one of these three methods must be completed by the time polls close September 1, or for the general election, on November 3. Under the special exception for the general election, ballots mailed on or before November 3 (election day) will be counted if they are received on Friday, November 6, no later than 5 PM. Note, however, that proof of mailing might become a problem because ballots sent in a postage-paid envelope may not always include a postmark.
Voting by Absentee Ballot
Voters who have already applied to get absentee ballots for every election will receive them as before. (The names of such voters are supposed to be excluded from the lists used by the secretary of state when his office mails ballot applications.) Otherwise, absentee ballots must be requested. However, there are two special rules. First, a voter would qualify for an absentee ballot if taking precaution due to a COVID-19 state of emergency or upon the advice of medical professionals or government officials. Second, absentee ballots must be made available to individuals instructed to self-quarantine at a late date due to COVID-19. The requirements, such as time limitations, for obtaining an absentee ballot differ in some ways from the requirements for obtaining a ballot for early voting by mail. If you fail to act in time to get a ballot to vote early by mail but qualify for an absentee ballot, check to see whether you still have time to obtain an absentee ballot.
Get Your Ballot In One Step
For those comfortable with computers, there also will be a method to request either an early or absentee ballot without having to submit a separate ballot application. The system is to be set up on the secretary of state’s website. A voter requesting a ballot can ask to have it sent to the voter’s home address or to a different designated address. The voter then must complete the ballot and deliver it to the town clerk’s office in person, by mail, or in the drop box. This system is supposed to be operational no later than Thursday, October 1, for use in the general election. If feasible it will become available for the primary, as well.
Early In-Person Voting
Under the new statute, early in-person voting is available both for the fall primary and for the general election. For the primary on September 1, early voting begins on Saturday, August 22, and ends on Friday, August 28, with special Saturday and Sunday hours. For the November 3 general election, early voting begins on Saturday, October 17, and ends on Friday, October 30, with special hours on two Saturdays and two Sundays.
Both for September 1 and for November 3, staffing rules for polling places are relaxed. Election officials who are unable to obtain sufficient poll workers under the old rules may recruit individuals who are not residents of the town or who are not voters. Thus, college students who vote at their school addresses would become available and possibly not-yet-registered high school students could participate, as well. In addition, the requirement for a separate checkout desk is eliminated. Once your ballot is completed you just feed it into the tabulator without stopping at a second desk, feel good for having voted, and go home.
Both early voting ballots and absentee ballots received before the election or the primary may be fed into the tabulators by election workers at any time so long as no results are determined or announced before the close of polls. They do not have to wait to do this task on the date the polls are open. Criminal penalties are set for violation of the secrecy requirement. In line with this new rule, voting officials are no longer required to physically transfer absentee ballots to the appropriate precinct when the polls are open and to scan them there. As noted above, for the general election ballots mailed no later than election day, November 3, are counted if they are received by November 6.
Summary Of New Law
In sum, both for the fall primary and for the general election, these provisions under the new voting law will ease the process for obtaining a ballot for early voting by mail but, for the most part, early voting by mail will still remain a two-step process. While most voters will automatically get the application, they still will be required to submit the application and then return the ballot after they receive it. Absentee voting remains available with some new COVID-19 wrinkles. However, at least for the general election, the new computerized system to be set up on the secretary of state’s website will provide a system to obtain a ballot without submitting an application first. For those who want to vote in person, the new law provides for in-person early voting and, of course, in-person voting on the days of the primary and the general election. However, new rules regarding poll workers and new rules for feeding ballots into the tabulators will help town clerks in preparing for, and in conducting, both the primary and the general election.
Here in Falmouth we already faced the potential conflict between voting and health safety on May 19, when our municipal election was paired with a postponed election for a state Senate seat. Our May 19 election was conducted under special rules adopted by the Massachusetts Legislature, rules that were in effect only through the end of June. In one sense, the May 19 procedure worked because voter turnout, which was approximately 25 percent, was comparable to that in municipal elections in the past two years. On the other hand, the burden on Falmouth Town Clerk Michael Palmer and his office was enormous, what with mailing, processing, and receiving ballot applications and/or ballots and then counting all these early mail-in votes and absentee votes on election day.
We hope that the rules in effect for the fall primary and general election will help our election officials and poll workers run a smooth operation leading to high voter participation. However, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the work performed in connection with May 19. Mr. Palmer and those who helped him on and before May 19 deserve an enormous vote of thanks from all of us for successfully performing a herculean task on short notice at great personal sacrifice. In an election night interview Mr. Palmer, who said he has always loved election day, admitted that he was absolutely exhausted. Clearly, even with the improvements under the new law, their task this coming fall still will require great dedication and fortitude.
In addition to thanking our town clerk’s office for the work done for May 19, we thank the Massachusetts Legislature and the governor for the adoption of the new rules. Now, we wish all our election officials well as they prepare for and conduct the fall primary and election. We of the Falmouth League of Women Voters also hope that this article summarizing the new election law will help you, the voter, select the method that best suits you for participating in the fall election season. You have several choices both for the primary and for the general election:
- Vote early by mail
- Vote early in person
- Cast an absentee ballot
- Go to the polls on election day
Make your choices based on your personal situation and preferences—but please be sure to vote.