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More than 1M mail-in ballots requested in Massachusetts, but officials say turnout is 'slow' so far

A person places a mail-in ballot in a drop box.
John Locher
A person places a mail-in ballot in a drop box.

There have been 157,000 Massachusetts voters who have mailed their ballots for the November election, a number that Secretary of State William Galvin described as "slow" for this point in early voting.

Mail-in ballots began hitting mailboxes last week, and so far the secretary of state's office has filled a total of 1,071,000 requests to vote by mail. Early in-person voting starts this Saturday and every community in the state will have voting booths open the next two weekends leading up to Election Day on Nov. 8.

"We hope that the election, as it grows closer, will grow more interesting to voters," Galvin said at a press conference Friday. "While we're encouraged by the requests of a million, or in excess of a million, vote-by-mails, there does seem to be a certain lack of intensity so far in terms of the campaigns other than the ballot question campaigns."

Galvin attributed the slow turnout so far, in part to the contentious ballot questions in this race. Voters might be confused about contradictory statements from the well-funded ballot campaigns on referendum questions, he said.

Ads for and against Question 1, proclaimed the "Fair Share Amendment" by supporters and the "Tax Hike Amendment" by opponents, have dominated the airwaves in recent weeks. So far, coalitions have spent more than $31 million on the question, which would levy an additional 4 percent surtax on personal income that exceeds $1 million in a single year.

Opponents have spent more than $10.3 million and supporters almost $21.3 million according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

The other ballot questions have wracked up large contributions as well, with chain liquor store Total Wine & More funding a campaign against Question 3, which would allow companies to own more alcohol licenses, to the tune of $2.1 million this month. Questions 2 and 4 have also generated buzz and dollars.

But "lack of intensity" in candidate elections, where so far polls don't show close races for any statewide office, and "an absence of marquee races" for the U.S. Congress could contribute to so-far low voter turnout, Galvin said.

When asked by a reporter if he predicted voter turnout to be comparable to the last midterm election in 2018, which brought 2.75 million people to the polls, the secretary said he expected this election to be closer to 2014, which had 2.18 million voters.

"We had a gubernatorial race that was not terribly exciting in 2018, we didn't seem to have any statewide races that terribly were, and I looked at the ballot questions ... the only conclusion I could come to was there was a genuine appreciation of the significance of voting after the 2016 election," he said.

Among voters who have requested ballots to return by mail, Galvin reported 38 percent are Democrats, 6.3 percent are Republicans and others are unenrolled independents.

Most people who have already voted by mail are older, he said, including 600 to 700 people who are 100 years old or older. He added that this voting option is much more popular in suburban communities, and the municipality with the largest percentage of people requesting to vote by mail is Acton.

Applications for mail-in ballots will be accepted until Nov. 1. Completed ballots postmarked before Election Day will be counted if they are received within three mailing days of the election, which this year means until Nov. 12.

Galvin warned voters on Friday that, given slow mail service, it might be more reliable to vote early at a voting booth rather than by mail at this point in the election season.

He also reminded voters that once they cast a mail-in-ballot they may not vote again at the voting booth. He referenced a situation in the primaries this year where a candidate dropped out of a statewide office race after some had already voted for him, likely talking about Quentin Palfrey dropping out of the attorney general's race a week before the primary election.

"That's the trade-off when you vote early by mail or in person," Galvin said. "You will only be able to vote once, there's no such thing as retrieving your ballot."

For those who requested a mail-in ballot but have not sent it back filled out, he said they are welcome to vote in person.

On questions around speculation of organized poll watchers and potential voter intimidation, Galvin said election officials would not "tolerate" any attempt to interfere with the election.

"Observers are permitted, but they have to obey the rules," he said. "People who see what's going on from an appropriate distance away from the voters, where the voters are confidentially marking their ballots, and see what election officials are doing, provided they're doing it at an appropriate distance -- that's permitted. But if there's any effort to interfere with balloting or any effort to question voters without a specific legal reason, that will not be tolerated."

He added that police officers will be at the polls, and that campaigning or wearing anything related to a campaign is not allowed within 150 feet of the polling place both on Election Day and with early voting.

"There's no vigilantes," he said. "If people do not comply with the laws, they will be told to leave the polls and, if necessary, arrested."

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