Louisiana and Texas permitted early voting in 1921. It’s a slow moving trend, but it’s definitely taking hold. Thirty-seven states now provide some kind of of opportunity for registered voters to cast ballots before Election Day. Massachusetts is the newest kid on the block with in-person early voting starting Monday, October 24.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, the city’s election commissioner, Gladys Oyola, said she’s been preparing for “the election before the election” since 2014, when then-Governor Deval Patrick signed early voting into Massachusetts law.
Last week, Oyola was surrounded by staff answering phones and stuffing envelopes, their desks set up in no particular pattern. Boxes of blank ballots (white labels for early voting, yellow for absentee) were piled almost to the ceiling, along with piles of voter information and voting equipment.
“What you see here is [usually] our back office,” Oyola said, pointing around the crowded room. Just days before the state’s first-ever election with early voting, staff offices are under renovation. This is where people will come to cast their early ballots.
“I’ve been sounding the battle cry for the last two years, and I don’t think [anyone] believed it was coming until…” Oyola drifted off. “So here we are.”
Oyola opened a door onto a still somewhat raw public space. The front counter is being rebuilt, made longer for crowds expected during the 11 days of early voting.
Will Voters Show Up?
Despite the construction underway, Oyola said, “We’ve gotten great support,” and volunteers and staff would work through the weekend to get ready.
“We’re building it,” Oyola said. And like elections officials around Massachusetts, she wondered, will the voters come?
State officials told Oyola to expect about 15 percent of the total number of people who usually go to the polls on Election Day. In Springfield, that’s about 9,000 early voters. Oyola said the ballots are put in a vault and tallied November 8th.
Early voting procedures and potential complications were a big topic earlier this year when Springfield hosted a statewide conference for election clerks.
“As a group, the clerks and commissioners have been a little trepidatious because it is new, we’ve never done this before,” Oyola said.
There’s a redundancy in Massachusetts, with absentee and now early voting, Oyola said. She’d like to see it become one “animal.”
A Look At Other New England States
Looking around at other states, it’s evident how early voting can reduce long lines on busy election days. Some voters like it, so do some politicians. Many election officials say government should do whatever it takes to get people to the polls.
So why isn’t every state allowing for an early vote?
In New England, for instance, states may not technically offer early voting, but there are other ways to vote early. Rhode Island and Connecticut don’t have early voting laws per se, but over time the definition of who qualifies for an absentee ballot has broadened. Voters no longer need a complicated reason to get one, said Wendy Underhill, who tracks election policies for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“In the case of Rhode Island, it can be simply that the voter is not able to go to vote at the appropriate place on Election Day,” Underhill said.
For Connecticut, Underhill read the requirements out loud: “It says, ‘Will you be out of town during all the hours to vote on Election Day?'”
Still, when an early voting question made it to the 2014 state ballot, Connecticut voters rejected it.
Further north, Underhill said the state of Maine has been back and forth on early voting since 1970. Elections officials have now settled on in-person absentee voting. So has Vermont.
One state stands out as showing almost no interest in an early voting law. Election officials in New Hampshire, so proud of its first in the nation primary, have for years been saying that early voting is not for them. New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner told New Hampshire Public Radio that it’s not needed in a state where voter turnout is high.
“You have a country to look at with 50 different laboratories and what I’ve seen [in New Hampshire] just affirms the process that we have here, and the turnout that we get here,” Gardner said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
For some, including Gardner, early voting diminishes the significance of Election Day itself.
The Voters Themselves
On the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts, some registered voters felt likewise. But some weren’t even aware they could vote early. George Cannon, who works and lives in Springfield, said for this year, he’s voting November 8th.
“I’m gonna go on the regular day just because I want to have the longest time to think about everything,” Cannon said. “Although I already know basically what I’m going to do. ”
Cannon said he is definitely in favor of early voting. Anything that helps people get out to vote, he said, is a good thing.
New England Public Radio’s Hanna Krueger contributed to this report.