Massachusetts voters set a record earlier this month: the best-ever turnout for a state primary election, with the casting of 1.7 million votes in the Sept. 1 election. One factor driving this historic turnout was the expansion of mail-in voting, which was offered as an option to all voters for the first time due to health concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 1 million mail-in ballots were requested by Massachusetts voters — and over 800,000 were submitted, according to state officials.
By that measure alone, mail-in voting was a success. But there were some issues, too — most notably in Franklin, where some 3,000 mail-in ballots remained locked in a safe on Election Day. This forced officials to scramble to reopen the count, and lead to the resignation of the town clerk.
And more than two weeks later, we still lack critical details about the Sept. 1 primary — specifically the number of mail-in ballots that were rejected, and why. State officials say they, too, are eager to see that data, but a spokesperson for the secretary of the commonwealth’s office said it won’t be available for at least a few weeks.
That’s information that could help voters decide how they want to cast their ballot in November, as well as assist election officials as they plan for what some project will be an election with the highest turnout in Massachusetts history.
For some insight into a more time-tested mail-in voting system, GBH News turned to one of the few U.S. states where mail-in voting has long been the norm: Washington, which began experimenting with mail-in voting for some elections in 1983 and adopted universal vote-by-mail for all elections in 2011.
So how does Massachusetts’ vote-by-mail system — put into action in just a few months, like those of several other states — stack up? One Washington election official called it a “herculean effort,” pointing out that the West Coast state has determined their “best practices” after navigating the system for several years. Below are the most notable differences and similarities.
Different Practices, Timelines For Ballot Distribution
A key difference between Washington’s and Massachusetts’ respective vote-by-mail systems is how the states distribute mail-in ballots to voters — of which there are about 4.6 million registered in each state.
In Washington, all registered voters are mailed a ballot at least 18 days before an election.
In Massachusetts, all registered voters were mailed an application for a mail-in ballot in July. This came in the form of a postage-paid, returnable card. Another mailing has just gone out to registered voters who have not yet requested a mail-in ballot for the November election.
Voters can also download an application for a mail-in ballot online or send a request in writing to their local election office. The state is also constructing an online portal that will allow voters to request a mail-in ballot for the November election online.
Unlike Washington, Massachusetts is an “open primary state,” with nearly half of Massachusetts voters registered as “unenrolled.” This means they can choose a ballot from any party in a primary election. Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover), co-chair of the joint committee on Election Laws, says this factored into the decision to mail out applications for ballots, rather than ballots themselves.
“That’s why we never could just send out ballots to everybody, because we never would have had unenrolled voters participate,” Finegold said.
Despite this additional step — and reports from some voters that they never received their mail-in ballots despite having applied for them — mail-in voting proved popular in the Sept. 1 primary, and officials expect participation rates to be even higher for the November election.
Double-Checking The Dotted Line: Identity Verification
In both states, the voter’s signature is the key to ensuring that their vote is actually theirs. Both states require voters to sign their ballot, attesting to their identity under penalty of law (up to a felony), and will contact the voter if something is amiss with their signature or their ballot is unsigned. Both states require the signature on the ballot envelope, allowing the state to verify the voter’s identity while keeping the voter’s choices anonymous. But the way each state verifies that signature is where they diverge.
When you register to vote in Washington, your signature is uploaded into a centralized electronic database which election officials use to verify signatures on all ballots. Each voter’s ballot envelope has a barcode on it that, when scanned, points election officials to the voter signature in the database.
“Elections officials receive annual training from the Washington State Patrol fraud division on techniques for detecting forged signatures,” said Lori Augino, Washington State Director of Elections.
Augino said that if an election official spots something in the signature that raises alarm bells, they’ll kick it up to a supervisor. If the supervisor concurs, the voter is contacted.
“Perhaps that voter broke their arm and their signature has just changed,” said Augino. “So, if there’s a reason, you have what’s called a ‘cure process’ in place that allows that voter an opportunity to explain what happened.”
Augino said that if there is no explanation, or it doesn’t pass muster, local law enforcement is contacted, and an investigation is opened.
Meanwhile, signatures on mail-in ballots in Massachusetts are checked against the signature on the application for the ballot — not against the voter’s signature from their registration, or some other electronic database.
“I think, where the technology is at, that probably was the most efficient and effective way to do it,” Finegold said of the state’s decision to verify ballot signatures in this manner.
It would conceivably be easier to defraud the Massachusetts system — if one person got their hands on both an application and a ballot to give them false signatures — but Finegold noted that the signature is a declaration “under pains and penalty of perjury.” He said he feels confident with the level of security Massachusetts’ system ensures.
“You could go to jail for falsifying a signature,” Finegold said. “Someone would have to sign twice if they were doing this illegally. If you were the same person committing fraud twice? Well, I just don’t think many people would ever risk going to jail to cast a vote,” he said.
Location, Location, Location: Where Do The Ballots End Up?
In-person voting remains an option in both states, as well as dropping off your mail-in ballot instead of mailing it back. But the details of when and where you can vote differ.
In Washington, after more than a decade of universal mail-in voting, in-person voting is not really that popular. Augino called voting in-person on Election Day “the exception.” Voters can drop their mail-in ballots off at drop boxes throughout the state, or send them through the mail, in the weeks leading up to the election.
But in Massachusetts, in-person voting remains the same as it has been for decades. One change in recent years has been the expansion of early voting in many areas, which is set for Oct. 17-30 for the November election.
Dropping off your mail-in ballot is an option here, too — though not at your polling location on Election Day. One poll warden told GBH News that on Sept. 1, there were a number of voters who tried to drop off mail-in votes at the polling location she was managing. Unlike in Washington, this is not allowed under Massachusetts’ vote by mail system.
That said, many municipalities have set up drop boxes where mail-in ballots can be delivered on Election Day. You can also drop off your mail-in ballot at your local election office.
Counting The Votes, And Final Results
Washington’s election system is more centralized than ours, with statewide elections run at the county level. Each of the 39 counties has one designated voting center, where all mail-in votes cast in that county are tabulated.
Despite these efficiencies, Augino says that having results on election night is not common, nor is it expected.
“Our voters, our public, our media are very used to the fact that on election night, you don’t necessarily know the outcome of any races,” said Augino.
Augino said that even in races that aren’t particularly close, it’s common not to have results until a few days after an election.
“We get, really, the bulk of the ballots that we’re going to see in an election during election week,” said Augino. Voters can drop ballots off in a drop box until 8 p.m. on Election Day, and as long as mailed-in ballots are postmarked by Election Day, they’re valid for a few days longer.
Given the state’s rigorous signature verification system, Augino said it simply takes time to ensure each vote is valid before it’s tabulated.
In Washington, results for a general election are certified 21 days after Election Day. The interim is what’s known as a canvassing period. Unofficial results are updated online daily by election officials during that period as the votes are tabulated.
We don’t really know how long it will take to get results of the November election in Massachusetts, given that this is the first time that all voters have the option to participate in mail-in voting in a general election.
Elections are run at the municipal level. Most of the 351 cities and towns in the commonwealth process ballots through optical scanning machines, though a few dozen smaller towns still count them by hand.
In order to eliminate the possibility that a person could vote both in-person and by mail on Election Day, the tabulating is done at each individual polling location. Boston alone has more than 250 polling locations.
O’Malley said that to help ease the workload on Nov. 3, local election officials can start feeding mail-in ballots that they have received into electronic scanning machines prior to the day of the election — during early voting hours, for example. But those votes cannot be totaled up, and results can’t be announced, until the polls close on Election Day.
Just like in Washington, if mail-in ballots are postmarked by Election Day, they can be counted if they are received by Nov. 6. In Massachusetts, results of the election must be certified within 15 days of the election.
The Rarity Of Voter Fraud, And Accounting For Mistakes
Voter fraud, in any state, is rare. A 2020 Washington Post analysis of the 2016 and 2018 general elections across three states with universal mail-in voting — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — put the potential fraud rate at .0025 percent. Critics of legislation that has been enacted to combat voter fraud, such as voter ID laws, argue that the rate of voter disenfranchisement as a result far exceeds the rate of potential voter fraud.
Augino said that Washington’s robust management and signature verification program have been key to a secure vote-by-mail system that voters have faith in and have “grown to love.”
“Are these opportunities [for voter fraud] zero? No. They are not. Are they rampant? No. They are not,” she said, adding that “it’s kind of a tug of war almost between making it as accessible as possible while also building in all of the appropriate security precautions.”
In Washington’s 2018 midterm elections, just 142 out of the 3.1 million votes cast are currently under investigation as potentially fraudulent. One hundred thirty-two cases are for potential “double votes,” and 10 are cases where a vote was possibly cast by a “deceased voter.”
The recent primary is the first time vote-by-mail was done at such a scale in Massachusetts, so we have nothing to compare it to, but Sen. Barry Finegold said he feels good about the results.
“There were no cases of fraud,” he said. “I believe every person should feel that our elections are full of integrity and were not compromised one bit whatsoever.”
Still, there were a few issues, such as the approximately 3,000 mail-in ballots locked in a safe on Election Day in Franklin.
If the experience of other states is any indicator, at least some mail-in ballots in Massachusetts should have been rejected because they arrived after Election Day, or didn’t have a signature and were received too late to contact the voter.
But how many? We don’t know. State officials said those numbers won’t be available for a few weeks, as calculating them requires the efforts of an IT staff that is currently busy building a legally mandated portal to allow Massachusetts voters to apply for a mail-in ballot for November online.
This also means we don’t know how many mail-in ballots were rejected because the voter already voted in person — something the system is designed to detect.
If you have questions about mail-in voting or want to share your thoughts or experience voting by mail in Massachusetts, send an email to CuriosityDesk@wgbh.org.