This article was updated on Aug. 17 with three questions from readers about mail-in voting.
If you are a registered voter here in Massachusetts, chances are you’ve received a folded-up card in the mail in recent weeks with the words “Official 2020 Vote by Mail Application” emblazoned on it in big block lettering.
Yes. This year, due to public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, all Massachusetts voters can opt to vote by mail.
Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law that extended this option to vote by mail to all Bay State voters for both the Sept. 1 state primary and the Nov. 3 general election. As part of that law, the secretary of the commonwealth was required to mail these applications for mail-in ballots to each of Massachusetts' 4.5 million registered voters.
Dozens of states, including Massachusetts, have long embraced mail-in voting for voters who meet certain criteria, and all voters have already had this option in five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
This unprecedented change in how Massachusetts residents can vote left us with a number of questions about how it’s all going to work. Here's what we've learned:
1. Do I have to vote by mail? Can I just ignore all of this and vote in person?
In-person voting will still be an option for anyone who doesn’t want to vote by mail. Debra O’Malley with Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin's office noted that the state is also expanding early voting for the both the state primary and the general election in an attempt to reduce crowding at polls.
2. What do I do if I haven’t received a vote-by-mail application?
You can download and print out an application here. Or you can write a letter to your local election office requesting a ballot. If you go that route, the letter must include the address where you'd like your ballot mailed and your signature.
If you are not currently registered to vote, you also would not have received a vote-by-mail application. You still have time to register, and you can also do this by mail. You can also submit your vote-by-mail application form at the same time. More details about how to register to vote can be found here.
3. What’s the deadline for applying for my vote-by-mail ballot?
There are separate deadlines for the state primary and the general election, but you can request ballots for both elections by filling out that single form.
Your application for a vote-by-mail ballot for the state primary must be received by 5 p.m. on Aug. 26. Your application for a vote-by-mail ballot for the November general election must be received by 5 p.m. on Oct. 28.
These are both “received by” deadlines and not “postmarked by” deadlines.
O’Malley noted that the U.S. Postal Service recommends you allow at least a week for your application to get to your local election office, a week for your ballot to be delivered to you, and a week for your completed ballot to get from you to your local election office. As such, she stressed that “it’s best to apply earlier than the deadline.”
If you are running short on time, you can deliver your application in person to the local election office at your town or city hall.
4. Who pays for postage?
The application form you received in the mail has a return card already addressed to your local election office and that classic “US Postage Paid” message where the stamp would go. So, all you need to do is fill it out and drop it in the mail.
Same goes for your ballot once you receive it. O’Malley said federal funds will cover the cost of postage for ballots this year.
5. Can I apply for my vote-by-mail ballot online or over the phone instead of filling out the form and mailing it back?
According to the secretary of the commonwealth’s office, “all applications must be in writing.” That means applying by phone is a no-go, but requests can be submitted via email.
The key to applying successfully via email (or by mail, for that matter) is your signature. It cannot be typed. You can fill out your form, sign it by hand, snap a photo, and attach that photo to an email. Or, you can fill out an online version of the form and sign it with a stylus, mouse or your finger, and attach an image of it to an email. That email should be sent to your local election office. You can find contact information for your local election, including the email address, here.
The Massachusetts law that expanded mail-in voting also allowed for the state to create an online application portal. O’Malley said the portal is under construction and will be ready by October.
That will be too late to apply to vote by mail in the primary, and given the state's emphasis on applying for your mail-in ballot early, it’s perhaps prudent not to wait for that to launch.
You an also fax your application to your local election office.
6. If I would normally apply for an absentee ballot, should I still do that? Or does mail-in voting replace the absentee ballot this year?
Vote-by-mail ballots are available to all voters this year, but absentee ballots do still exist. According to O’Malley, absentee ballots may still be the option for voters who fit certain criteria, including those who:
- are in the military
- reside overseas
- are incarcerated
- need a family member to apply on their behalf
- are admitted to a hospital or quarantined within one week of the election and need an emergency ballot delivered
More information about how to apply for an absentee ballot is available here.
7. If I apply for a vote-by-mail ballot, am I locked into voting by mail? Can I change my mind and vote in-person instead?
You do not have to vote by mail if you apply for and receive a vote-by-mail ballot.
If your local election office has not received and validated your mail-in ballot by Election Day — Sept. 1 for the primary and Nov. 3 for the general election — you can still vote in person.
Also, in the event that you submit a vote-by-mail ballot and it is deemed invalid (more on that later), you can also vote in-person on Election Day.
Reader Question: I’ve applied to vote by mail. When should I expect to receive my ballot?
Asked by multiple readers
For the primary, ballots have already been going out for weeks. Your local election office handles mailing it to you.
“As soon as the ballots and envelopes are all ready, clerks begin mailing ballots to those who have already applied,” O’Malley said.
“They mail as many as they can each day, until all ballots have gone out,” she continued. “And then they continue mailing ballots on a rolling basis as new applications arrive.”
For the November election, ballots are expected to begin being mailed out in late September/early October.
8. What do I do if I lose or damage my mail-in ballot once I receive it? Can I get another one?
You can. But it will take some time.
O’Malley said that you can return a damaged ballot to your local election office with a note indicating that you are “spoiling your ballot” and need a new one sent to you.
Reader Question: The mail-in ballots don’t include instructions for whether to use pencil or pen (blue or black). Does it matter?
Asked by Mary Lou Beasley
Black ink is preferred. That’s what the tabulating machines “see” the best. That said, any writing implement can be used.
“If the tabulator can’t read a ballot, it will reject it, so it can be counted by hand,” O’Malley said. “As long as the intent of the voter can be determined, the ballot will be counted.”
9. I’m worried my vote won’t be counted if I vote by mail. What might render my mail-in ballot invalid in Massachusetts?
Your ballot will be rejected if:
- You missed the deadline to submit your ballot.
For the Sept. 1 primary, any ballot received after 8 p.m. on Sept. 1 will not be counted. For the Nov. 3 election, ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 3. But even if it is postmarked on or before Election Day, if it is received after 5 p.m. on Nov. 6, it will be rejected. If you are worried that you are running short on time, you can hand deliver your ballot to your local election office.
- Your ballot envelope is not signed.
“The most important thing to do is remember to sign your ballot envelope," O’Malley said. "That signature must be matched against your signature on file. If it is missing, your ballot will be rejected and a new one will be sent to you if there is time.”
- You have already voted in person.
10. If I vote by mail, will I receive confirmation that my vote was counted?
According to O’Malley, all accepted ballots will be counted. You won’t be notified that your vote has been tallied, but you will be if your ballot is not accepted. O’Malley said that if time permits, a new ballot will be sent to you. You can also vote in person if your mail-in ballot has not been accepted by Election Day.
You can proactively confirm that your mail-in ballot was accepted at www.TrackMyBallotMA.com.
Reader Question: Can I verify how I signed my voter registration? I don’t usually use my middle initial when I sign other documents things, but might have on my registration.
Asked by Rene Morneau in Beverly, MA
Your signature is an important part of the vote-by-mail process, as it is required on both your application and your completed ballot. Completed ballots without a signature will be rejected.
Crucially, though, the signature on your ballot is checked for validity against the signature on your application — not your voter registration. You just need to be sure to sign your application and completed ballot the same way.
“Voters do not need to worry about older signatures on their voter registration,” said O’Malley, adding that “ballots will not be rejected for minor differences in signatures.”
11. What mechanisms are in place to ensure people don’t accidentally — or intentionally — vote by mail and then again in person?
"Once a ballot reaches a local election office, the clerk must check the ballot envelope to make sure it is signed by the voter. As long as the ballot envelope is properly completed, the voter is then checked off on the voter list that will be used during early voting and at the polling places on Election Day, so the voter will not be able to vote again," O'Malley said.
12. Will I have to show an ID with my mail-in ballot?
You might. According to O’Malley, federal law requires “first-time voters to show ID if they registered to vote by mail and their identity has not been confirmed.”
So, some voters who are voting for the first time in Massachusetts may be asked to submit ID with their ballots, just as they’d be asked to show ID at their polling places if they voted in person.
This does not have to be a photo ID. A utility bill, bank statement, pay stub or lease will suffice, as will another official document containing your name and address. O’Malley said any voter required to submit an ID will receive a letter with their ballot explaining this.
13. How will officials tabulate the results? What is the expected time frame for this?
All ballots, whether filled out in-person or submitted by mail, get fed into the ballot box. About five dozen smaller Massachusetts municipalities still count votes by hand. In most cities and towns, votes are processed through an optical scan machine.
O'Malley noted that any vote that is processed — in person or by mail — is required to happen "in full view of the public."
In general, mail-in ballots are processed at the polling location where each voter would have cast an in-person ballot. Poll workers are required to announce to anyone present when they are processing mail-in ballots at a polling location.
Some municipalities may choose to establish a central processing facility for mail-in ballots. A list of all central processing facilities will be posted on the state's website prior to Election Day. Like any other polling location, these central processing facilities must be open to the public while they are processing votes.
Even in towns that do establish a central processing location, any mail-in ballot recieved on Election Day must be processed at the polling location instead. This is to eliminate the possibilty that a person could vote both in-person and by mail on Election Day.
For the primary, O’Malley said the tallying process “may go later into the night … because of the processing time for ballots returned by mail at the last minute.”
In order to ease this burden, local election officials will have the option this year to start inserting received ballots into ballot boxes prior to the day of the election, O’Malley said, noting that while they can process the ballots, they cannot count them or announce results until Election Day.
She also noted that “this tabulation will need to be publicly announced beforehand and will be open to public observation," just as it would be on Election Day.
The same will be true for the general election, though unlike the primary, ballots can still arrive after Election Day. So ballot counting in the general election will continue after Nov. 3.
“As usual, clerks will be able to announce unofficial results on election night for all ballots received by Election Day," O’Malley said, "but those results may come later in the evening than usual."
By state law, official primary election results must be certified by local election officials within four days of the election. For the November general election, local election officials must certify the results within 15 days of Election Day.