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Mass. 2020 Primary: What To Know About Voting By Mail Or At The Polls

A Massachusetts vote-by-mail application. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A Massachusetts vote-by-mail application. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

There are now more ways to cast a ballot in Massachusetts than ever before.

Thanks to a new voting law spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, voters in the 2020 state primary and the November general election may now vote by mail. Earlier this month, the office of Secretary of State Bill Galvin began sending out ballot applications for voters seeking to vote by mail.

In another first for Massachusetts voters, early voting will also be allowed for the primary election — not just the general election — at certain polling locations. And of course, old-fashioned in-person voting won't be stopped by the virus on either day.

“I'm very optimistic that people are going to be happy with having so many different options for how to vote,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, who led the push for the voting legislation in the state Senate. It was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on July 6.

The voter access expansions only apply to the 2020 elections — for now.

“I think we're going to learn a lot,” Finegold said. “And hopefully what we learn from this election, we might include in future elections.”

Here's everything you need to know about casting your ballot in the Sept. 1 primary.

How To Vote By Mail

Under the new law, Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin was mandated to send out ballot applications to all 4.5 million eligible registered voters in the state by July 15. (That deadline was missed due to problems related to postage costs that eventually were rectified — but the expected delayed rollout sparked a lawsuit filed before the state's highest court. Plaintiffs in that case have since filed a motion to dismiss the case, a spokeswoman for Galvin's office said.)

As of Wednesday, July 22, Galvin's office said it had sent out all vote-by-mail ballot applications. A spokeswoman noted that all registered voters should have received their ballot applications by Friday, July 24.

Requesting A Vote-By-Mail Ballot

Registered voters must ensure that completed applications reach their local election offices by no later than Aug. 26 — via post or drop-off. A postmarked date won't count if it arrives later. And, Galvin's office notes that because mail can "take up to a week to be delivered in one direction," voters should really plan to apply for a ballot with a two- to three-week buffer. (Here's how to locate the address of your local election office.)

Voters can also download and print their own vote-by-mail application here. Technically, voters also can request a ballot on a plain piece of paper, Galvin said, as long as it contains the right information.

"Any written request, so long as it has a signature on it — it can be an electronic signature, but we need a signature — with the address of the voter, where they reside and where they're registered from [will work]," Galvin said. "And if it's to be sent to a location other than where they reside, they'll need to provide that as well. ... And if they're an independent [unenrolled voter], they'll need to select a party ballot."

If you didn't get a ballot application, it is likely because you haven't yet registered to vote. You can check your voter registration here. You can register online, by mail or at your city or town hall. The registration deadline for the 2020 primary is Aug. 22.

Once your registration is squared away, you can again write to request a vote-by-mail ballot application or print it, or, if you're more of a phone person, you can ask for an application by calling 1-800-462-VOTE (8683).

Unenrolled? Select A Party

Unenrolled — or what many refer to as "independent" -- voters must check a box on the vote-by-mail applications indicating whether they want a Democratic or Republican primary ballot. It's essentially the same process at the polls; voters can only cast ballots in one party's primary.

Delivering Your Mail-In Ballot

Once your application is approved, the state will mail an election ballot to your address, along with a return envelope and postage prepaid by the government.  Mailed primary ballots received after Sept. 1 will not be counted.

As of Aug. 21, Galvin's office is now encouraging voters who requested to vote by mail in the primary election to hand-deliver their ballots to their local early voting site, as ballots must reach each voter’s local election office by 8 p.m. on Sept. 1 in order to be counted.

“If you are able to do so, the best way to ensure that your ballot is counted is to deliver it in person,” Galvin said. “Ballots can be returned to early voting sites, ballot drop boxes, and local election offices."

Election offices include city or town clerks and local election commissions. You can find your local election office and a list of designated ballot dropbox locations here.

Tracking Your Vote-By-Mail Ballot

Voters who send in their vote-by-mail ballots can use the state's portal to track their ballots here. For the most up to date information on the status of your ballot application, call your local election office.

Some final thoughts on this: Say you change your mind about voting by mail after you've already requested a ballot. You decide you want to vote at the polls instead, or you realize your mailed ballot won't make it to election officials by Sept. 1. As long as election officials do not confirm that they received your mailed ballot, like traditional absentee ballots, you can still vote in-person on Election Day or vote early. You also can try to vote in person after sending in a mailed ballot if, for whatever reason, your mailed ballot is rejected.

Just keep in mind that if your election office accepted your ballot, you cannot vote again.

Voting Early, In Person

Early in-person voting for the state primary runs from Saturday, Aug. 22, until Friday, Aug. 28.

On these dates, voters can visit specific local polling stations in person to cast their ballots. The state's website states that a list of early voting dates, times and locations for each community will be posted at least one week before early voting begins.

“Once you've voted early, that's it. You can't change your mind and vote again," Galvin said. "So if you have any indecision about who you're voting for ... then you probably shouldn't vote by mail. If you're going to wait for the last debate in the case of a race for any office, you shouldn't vote by mail."

Voting In Person, On Election Day

Finally, voters may still cast their primary ballots at the polls on Election Day, Sept. 1. Here's how to identify your local polling station.


Questions? If you have questions about voting in the state primary, please email WBUR's Lisa Creamer at acreamer@bu.edu, or WBUR's Wilder Fleming at wilderf@bu.edu.

This article was originally published on July 24, 2020.

Wilder Fleming Twitter Political Producer
Wilder Fleming is a political producer at WBUR, focused on the path to November 2020.

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Lisa Creamer Twitter Managing Editor, Digital
Lisa Creamer is a digital editor and producer at WBUR.

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