Thousands of Massachusetts Voters’ Ballots Weren’t Counted

Almost 60% of Provisional Ballots Were Discarded in 2020

In Massachusetts’ 2020 general election, almost 60% of provisional ballots were not counted, according to election data from the Secretary of State’s office. Of the 4,323 provisional ballots issued in the 2020 statewide election, 2,587 ballots were rejected. A ‘provisional ballot’ is provided to someone who shows up at the polls on Election Day, assuming they are registered, but are told they are not currently on the voter list at the precinct. 

Download the full data table HERE

See the fact sheet HERE

According to the Election Modernization Coalition, most, if not all, of these voters could have cast regular ballots if Election Day Registration was the law in Massachusetts. With Election Day Registration, voters who encounter a problem with their registration at the polls can register on the spot and then cast a vote.

In the 20 states with Election Day registration (EDR), officials report that more than half of those who use EDR are people reconciling issues with their registration. “This simple fix could eliminate so much disenfranchisement,” said Beth Huang, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Voter Table

The data demonstrates the extent to which voter disenfranchisement is an urban issue. The 2020 provisional ballot rejection totals are greatest in cities, with 72% of rejected ballots in cities and 28% in towns – despite the fact that the state population is nearly evenly split among cities and towns. Boston accounted for 28%, 731, of the rejected provisional ballots. Voting rights advocates attribute this difference to the higher mobility of city residents, more of whom rent housing instead of owning their own homes.

“It is immensely frustrating that, in communities with the largest Black and brown, low income, and immigrant communities, thousands of individuals tried to vote, but did not have their votes counted,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, Executive Director at MassVOTE. “In Boston, more than 700 individuals attempted to vote, but due to issues with their registration, could not. This is unacceptable. By passing Election Day Registration, we make it possible for officials to update voter registration information on election day, ensuring that all votes that should be counted are counted.” 

Other cities accounted for 44%, with the highest totals of rejected ballots in Worcester, 182; Lowell, 149; Taunton, 84; Lawrence, 56; Haverhill, 49; and Newton, 42. By contrast, more than 75% of towns issued five or fewer provisional ballots. 

Election Day voter registration would free town clerks and city election officials from the cumbersome provisional ballot process in most cases, and enable the election official assigned to provisional ballots to instead offer voter registration to people who encounter a problem,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, “This would be a win-win for voters and poll workers alike.”

State law requires that local election officials investigate and resolve all provisional ballots within three days of a state or presidential primary and within twelve days of a state or local election, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

“When people come to the polls and think they have voted, they should not have to wonder if that vote will be rejected.  Election Day registration lets people fix errors in their voter registration,” said Pattye Comfort, executive director, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts.  

“There are so many reasons to enact Election Day registration in Massachusetts; this data showing that thousands of people were unnecessarily left out of the 2020 election just piles on to them,” said Janet Domenitz, director of MASSPIRG

“These are voters who planned to vote, took the time to show up, thought they were making a difference, and their votes were thrown out,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We know how to fix this. With Election Day registration every vote counts and every voter’s voice matters.”