Some Hope Voting By Mail Could Boost Dismal Turnout In Local Mass. Elections

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

Advocates are hoping new rules that make it easier to vote by mail in Massachusetts could significantly boost turnout in dozens of normally sleepy municipal elections slated for this month.

Indeed, some believe the new vote-by-mail rules could even reshape local politics in cities like Lynn, where most of the city councilors are white, but most of the residents are not.

"The mail-in ballot allows for voting to be accessible to people," said Michael Satterwhite, a Black school committee member running for mayor.

Satterwhite said the new rules could be especially helpful in boosting turnout in Black and Latino neighborhoods, where many people work multiple jobs and don't have time to go to the polls.

And Satterwhite hopes those additional votes are enough to help vault him into office. He even brings vote-by-mail applications with him on the campaign trail.

Lynn mayoral hopeful Michael Satterwhite said mail-in voting will get more people of color to vote — and he hopes that helps him win. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Lynn mayoral hopeful Michael Satterwhite said mail-in voting will get more people of color to vote — and he hopes that helps him win. (Simón Rios/WBUR)

Election officials in Lynn expect 2,000 residents to request mail-in ballots ahead of the city's preliminary election next week.

That could potentially be enough to make a difference in the election, given how few people normally turnout for local races. Just over 6,000 people voted in the city’s last preliminary for mayor in 2019 out of more than 52,000 registered voters.

And Boston has already received nearly 40,000 requests for ballots in next week's preliminary mayoral election.

But advocates say fewer people seem aware of the option in many other communities, especially those without major races. Taunton, for instance, has received fewer than 20 requests for ballots so far. The city's elections supervisor said Taunton has used social media and its website to inform voters about mail-in voting.

Until recently, people in Massachusetts could only vote by mail if they were out of town or had another good excuse. After the pandemic hit, state lawmakers decided to temporarily let anyone vote by mail. Those rules are set to expire in December.

But some activists are pushing to make the changes permanent. That includes Mass Senior Action Council member Paulette Durrett. She said it’s often difficult for seniors to get to the polls, and mail-in voting solves that issue.

"It's always been a transportation problem for them," Durrett said. "'Who's going to take me? What if it rains?'... there's just obstacles for senior citizens when it comes to voting."

Supporters insist mail-in voting has already made a difference in Massachusetts, which saw record turnout in the last presidential election. More than 40% of those votes were cast by mail.

Lynn’s elections chief, Janet Rowe, said she has been pushing hard to get the word out about the new rules, presenting at five community events in August alone.

"We've actually picked up a lot more students that are away at college," said Rowe, who supports voting by mail in future elections. "People love the mail-in voting."

But state Republicans have argued mail-in voting could make it easier to cast fraudulent ballots. And not all Democrats are enthusiastic about the policy.

Lynn mayoral candidate and City Council President Darren Cyr wasn’t even sure mail-in was an option in the coming election.

"I don't know if I support mail-in voting as much as in-person," Cyr said.

"I'm not saying I don't support it. I don't know, I've never really given it any thought to be honest with you."

Instead, Cyr wants early voting in place for a month before election day. And he rejected the idea that mail-in voting will encourage more people of color to vote or benefit a particular candidate.

Historically, Black and Latino residents vote at a far lower rate than white voters in Massachusetts. While 71% of white voters turned out in 2020, the figure was only 51% for Hispanic voters and just 36% for Black voters. That’s the lowest Black turnout percentage in the country, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Doug Chavez is a Boston-based political strategist who specializes in mobilizing Latino voters. He said low turnout in Black and brown communities is about class and education — but also disenchantment with politics.

"They're not confident in the leaders coming through for them," he said. "Black and brown folks have been left behind economically, in education, the health care system. Look what happened in the pandemic — it blew up the disparities that exist in our communities."

Chavez said many people simply don't have the time to prioritize voting, even if they're willing. He sees it every time there's an election, right before the polls close, when he's tracking down people likely to vote for his candidate.

"I say, 'Look, I'll give you a ride right now. Let's go,' " Chavez recalled. "I pull people who weren't going to vote just because they come home tired or have to take care of their families."

Chavez said mail-in voting could make a difference. The problem, he said, is not enough people know about the option.

"I just wish we would have done a little more advertising or run a better awareness campaign," he said. "Some people weren't even aware that mail-in voting was an option this year."

Last year, state election officials took significant efforts to encourage people to vote by mail in November, sending every voter an application. But the Secretary of State’s office said it was too late to send similar mailings this year, because lawmakers waited too long to extend the vote-by-mail rules.

That means local election officials are on their own to get the word out this voting season.

This segment aired on September 7, 2021.


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Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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