Election Protection 2020: Preliminary Report
In the midst of a global pandemic, voters in Massachusetts set a record: 3,657,972 voters were cast in the November 3rd general elections, the most in our Commonwealth’s history. It was Massachusetts’ highest rate of participation, at 76% or registered voters, in 30 years. That Bay Staters were able to set records in a safe, secure, and accessible election was thanks to legislation that expanded mail voting and early voting and brought about myriad administrative fixes, and also thanks to elections officials who worked tirelessly to ensure that Bay Staters could make their voice heard.
Despite enormous challenges – from the pandemic to attacks on the USPS and delays in the mail, heightened tensions and concerns around violence at the polls, and a torrent of misinformation – the general elections in Massachusetts were an enormous success. The Commonwealth saw record participation and new voters, and all of the worst-case scenarios that elections experts had forewarned were avoided. That said, issues arise every year, and Election Protection is on the ground to resolve those problems. This brief details the 2020 Election Protection Program in Massachusetts, and those primary issues that arose on Election Day. A follow-up report will provide more comprehensive coverage of those issues that distorted democracy on election day, and present potential solutions.
Election Protection – led by Common Cause and Lawyers for Civil Rights – is the largest nonpartisan program that protects the right to a meaningful ballot for voters nationwide. This year, the Massachusetts Election Protection Coalition recruited and trained over 2,000 volunteers across the Commonwealth to ensure fair access to the polls amid one of the most fraught general elections in modern memory. From gateway communities Lawrence and New Bedford to Springfield and Boston, volunteers fielded hundreds of questions and resolved problems that otherwise would have kept Bay Staters from casting a counted ballot. Volunteers and the coalition helped create the conditions necessary for a generally smooth experience for the record 3.6 million voters who cast their ballots.
Through 127 reports made by volunteers, over 400 calls to the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, and questions directed to the command center, we found four primary categories of election day issues: (1) problems with voter registration and identification, (2) issues with intimidation and electioneering, (3) inadequate signage and other issues with polling locations, and (4) a few additional issues likely unique to this election.
(1) Voter Registration & Identification
Volunteers and partners in the Command Center helped dozens of voters who had been turned away from the polls because they did not appear on the registration rolls. In some cases, voters were at the wrong polling location and directed to the right one. In others, the voter either didn’t appear to be registered (some would-be first-time voters confirmed they did not know they were required to register), or had an out-of-date registration. There was at least one new citizen whose naturalization ceremony took place only a week prior to election day, and who did not know they needed to register in advance. Another would-be voter had moved recently to flee domestic abuse; she thought that she had successfully changed her registration online, but her registration still reflected her prior address and she did not wish to return to that municipality, fearing her assailant. Dozens of voters were directed to return inside and request a provisional ballot. However, many of these ballots will not be counted if it is confirmed by the board of elections that the voter is not registered: the lack of a remedy in these situations, namely the ability to register on election day, serves as a roadblock to participation for would-be voters across the Commonwealth.
In addition, nearly 70 individuals called the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline to report incidents involving poll workers asking for photo ID from voters – something that is not always improper but can result in eligible voters not participating. Massachusetts does not require voters to present photo identification before casting a ballot, but inactive voters and voters requesting provisional ballots may be asked to present proof of residency in order to vote. This complicated system creates confusion among poll workers, voters, and observers alike- streamlining poll worker training with a mandated, state-run system would help avoid situations like the ones our volunteers reported.
(2) Intimidation & Electioneering
Advocates and elections officials alike were concerned about attempts to intimidate voters this year. Fortunately, the worst did not happen: while there were issues of electioneering on both the right and left, and some voters felt intimidated, there was no violence at the polls or instances where Bay Staters were deterred from voting because of intimidating activity. We received several complaints about candidate supporters: in three instances trucks with Trump flags were stationed too close to the entrance of polling locations, including one fire truck, and in another instance, a man was standing next to the entrance of a polling place with a blow horn telling voters to support Biden. In most cases, the offenders were reported and directed to move back. Additionally, police presence in some instances – including a police motorcycle training taking place next to one polling location – was reported as intimidating to some voters, especially Black voters and voters of color.
(3) Inadequate Signage and Other Polling Place Issues
Another significant issue was a lack of proper signage in and around polling locations, particularly in Fall River, New Bedford, and Boston. Adequate and linguistically appropriate signage is both required by law and needed to clearly mark polling places for voters. In some instances, like at one polling place in Lowell, election officials brought out improvised signage after election protection volunteers pointed out the violation. In another instance, a community member who passed by the polling place stepped in and posted a sign they made after speaking with an Election Protection volunteer and agreeing there was insufficient signage.
There were a few additional accessibility issues: at one location in Framingham, the door to the polling place would not open from the outside and required a poll worker to stay at the door. One polling location in Pittsfield tried to close at 7pm, but remained open when the EP volunteer present reminded them that polling locations must stay open until 8pm. These issues underscore the need to adequately resource our elections and elections officials, and provide rigorous training for poll workers. However, we understand that new polling place issues likely arose this year, as many elections officials had to scramble to identify new COVID-safe sites to hold elections.
(4) Other issues — Across the state, volunteers helped voters who had requested or received mail ballots navigate their options on Election Day. Some wanted to return ballots to polling places, and volunteers directed them to city or town hall or nearby dropboxes. In other instances, voters wanted to cast an in-person ballot and were unsure of their options. These issues suggest that more public education is needed, if expanded mail voting becomes permanent as we hope it will be. Finally, likely due to the high stakes and threats of agitation around this year’s election, law enforcement officials and elections officials were far more aggressive with Election Protection Volunteers, asking them to remain 150 feet away. In one instance, an election official told Election Protection volunteers not to speak with voters even on their way out. We were able to resolve most of these issues.
We also received three reports of instances where election officials felt our volunteers were acting aggressively, and we responded immediately and worked with the volunteers in question. While our volunteer conduct training is thorough, we take these instances to heart as reminders that we can always improve. However, we also recognize that certain identity groups – particularly Black men and men of color – confront systemic bias where even benign actions on their part like smiling and asking voters how their experience was could be seen as “aggressive” or “threatening.” We intend to incorporate a discussion and understanding of racial bias into our future training.
Voting is our civic duty – and it’s also a habit. Election Protection is a program designed to ensure that all would-be voters can cast a ballot, and have the best possible experience at the polls to increase the likelihood that they participate again. This fall’s program succeeded in helping hundreds of voters, and the participation of so many volunteers modeled the kind of active, community-driven civic engagement our Commonwealth and democracy so badly needs. There is always more work to do, but for now, we thank our volunteers, coalition partners, and supporters for making this election a success.