By Maxim Tamarov
Last week, many voters in Winthrop received forms to fill out to receive mail-in ballots.
The envelopes, pre-stamped and bearing the name of the Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin, were sent out to every registered voter in Massachusetts in light of a new bill signed into law on July 6 by Gov. Charlie Baker. The law allows all voters in the state to vote by mail with no reason needed.
The changes are meant to avoid long lines at polling booths, where social distancing is difficult and where poll workers, who are often aged 60 or older, are in danger of contracting the coronavirus. Despite challenges, officials say, the system is worth it for the health of all involved.
“The safest way to vote this year is to vote by mail,” said Rachael Cobb, associate professor of government at Suffolk University. “As many people as possible should take advantage of this.”
Cobb, who serves on the board of MassVOTE and the Boston Election Advisory Committee, specializes in U.S. elections, election administration, and political participation. She has faith, she said, in the state’s ability to overcome the difficulties of administering a mail-in ballot election.
The usual issues that are common before every election, she said, are going to be “bigger and scarier” this year because of the novelty of the situation. For one thing, there is not much time between when the ballot applications were sent out and the elections themselves. For another, the increase in mail-in ballots means more people will need to be trained on scanners — and there might be an issue of having enough high-speed scanners.
“It’s certainly not easy,” Cobb said. “If someone came to me and said, ‘Hey, would you like to change the entire policy of how we administer elections five weeks before a major presidential election?’ I’d say, ‘Are you crazy?’”
Applications will be an important metric for election boards in order to know how many mail-in ballots to expect and how many voters to expect in person. Nearly 10,000 people turned out for the last presidential election in WInthrop.
Town Clerk Carla Vitale said that details such as which polling stations will be open and who will staff them are still being worked out.
But the expanded mail-in ballot operation will likely mean a longer wait for election results regardless of the amount of staff and stations.
It will be vital, according to Cobb, for residents to be patient with the process and not to interpret lagging results as something sinister. If the election is super-close, she explained, it might take as much as a few days for the results to be tabulated.
“Many of us are content with voting early and not knowing the results until election day,” Cobb said, “so we should all view the election as an early voting day.”
There also is no reason to fear for the integrity of the mail-in ballot process. Vitale said she was offended by the insinuation that the election might be less safe because of it. Cobb explained voter fraud is “very rare,” won’t swing an election, and is not a concern.
There are many states, she went on, such as California, that have relied heavily on mail-in ballots for a long time and there are protections built into the system that make voter fraud discernible.
What is a concern, Cobb said, is that the mail-in ballot applications may be confusing for some voters. First-time voters especially, she said, may be confused about what to write where and what boxes to check.
With so little time between the applications and the elections, what would normally be an easy, spoiled-ballot procedure will require resending applications to request new ballots. Not getting ballots in on time may result in disqualified ballots, as was a problem in California earlier this year.
Despite the logistical challenges that such an election poses though, Vitale said Winthrop is “certainly equipped, ready, and able” to provide safe elections in September and November. Vitale emphasized her 14 years of experience as Town Clerk and her confidence in her staff.
“We’re well-poised to handle everything,” she added.
Register to vote online, by mail, or in person at Winthrop Town Hall. You can check your registration status by visiting the secretary of state’s website. Applications for the state primary ballot must be delivered by Aug. 26 and for the state election ballot by Oct. 28.
Maxim Tamarov is a freelance reporter covering coronavirus and environmental issues for the Winthrop Sun Transcript. Send comments or story ideas to [email protected]