As Mass. Holds Early Voting For The First Time, Little Real-Time Data Available

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Voters in Cambridge wait in line on the first day of early voting -- Monday, Oct. 24. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Voters in Cambridge wait in line on the first day of early voting -- Monday, Oct. 24. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

11/1 Update: 

State Democratic and Republican party officials say they have regular access to updated early voting turnout information, down to the individual voter level.

This contrasts with what Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said when we talked last week for this story. The file, which both parties can periodically request from the secretary of state’s office, shows basic information about the voter, such as name, address and party registration. It also shows when and how each early voter cast their ballot (i.e., absentee or early vote). This level of detail allows parties to see who has voted, enabling better tracking of get-out-the-vote efforts.

Individuals and researchers are not able to access early voting data, meaning the public will remain in the dark about much of what happens during the early vote period. If it were available, it would allow for very detailed and real time tracking of how the vote is unfolding.

McNiff, when reached Tuesday, said parties can access the data once per election cycle.

"What they get is, before a campaign, they get a voting record for the communities, whatever district candidates are running in. But they don’t get updates," McNiff said.

Original post: 

Election Day is still 11 days away, but hundreds of thousands of ballots have already been cast in Massachusetts since early voting began earlier this week.

However, nobody really knows what to expect in terms of how many early votes will be cast here, or how early voting might affect the outcome, or even who is choosing to vote early.

That’s because we have never done this before. So we don’t really have any historical precedent to help us figure out what might happen. And the available data on how the vote is going this year are sparse, to say the least.

In some states, near real-time information on exactly who has voted are readily available. In others, there are at least summary statistics. Campaigns can use this information to track their get-out-the-vote efforts, and journalists can analyze turnout.

Here in Massachusetts, it’s a different story. A spokesman for the secretary of state’s office said town by town counts suggest around 288,000 people have voted so far. But what’s included in this figure is murky. Some cities and towns have yet to provide any data at all meaning the real number could be quite different.


Even if the data expands to cover all towns, there are no plans to publish detailed counts. So other than a few city clerks tweeting out raw vote totals, we may not know much about how early voting is going.

For campaigns, bad data on early voting is a big deal because a significant chunk of voters will cast their ballots before Election Day. In the 2012 election, about a third of votes came in early nationally. In 12 states, it was more than half the ballots.

Campaigns need this data updated in real time to figure out who has voted already and who they still need to get to the polls. Under the system in Massachusetts, individual voter data, like other states provide, won’t even be collected and processed until after Election Day.

This lack of data isn’t a big deal in Massachusetts yet because many races are either unopposed or not remotely competitive. But fast forward two years, and this changes. With potentially competitive races for the governor's seat and the Senate, the state parties will struggle without more useful and timely information.

This article was originally published on October 28, 2016.

This segment aired on October 28, 2016.


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Steve Koczela Contributor
Steve Koczela is the president of The MassINC Polling Group and has overseen WBUR's polling since 2011.



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