The 2016 presidential election was the first test of a historic election reform package passed in 2014 by the Massachusetts legislature. The new law put our state squarely in the forefront of a national movement to remove obstacles to voting; it provides online voter registration, pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds, sets procedures for audits of election equipment, implements mechanisms to streamline Massachusetts election administration, and provides an 11 day period of early voting . It was a big step in the right direction.
This report focuses on early voting best practices and examines the experiences of other states that now offer expanded early voting opportunities. Properly implemented, early voting dramatically shortens the long lines many voters faced in Massachusetts during the 2012 election—three hours in some urban precincts—and makes voting more accessible for many citizens.
Early voting helps voters fit voting into busy work, childcare, and school schedules. Experience in other states suggests the increased accessibility of elections improves voter retention and moderately boosts turnout. And with a well-run voter education effort, it could expand the electorate as well. National estimates of lost votes due to long lines in 2012 range from 500,000 to 700,000, and the economic cost to people of waiting to vote is approximately $500 million.
Early voting is growing in popularity; Massachusetts joined 34 states and Washington, D.C. by enacting this important reform. In 2012, 33 to 40 percent of voters nationwide voted early or by mail, with benefits for both voters and administrators: election officials and staffers find that, with the reform in place, the conduct of elections is more manageable. That is why it was a top recommendation of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration last year.
The Massachusetts law permits early voting for 11 days preceding Election Day, including one weekend. Beyond this requirement, the law provides a great deal of flexibility in how it is implemented. Success depended largely on thoughtful consideration of the hours, locations, staffing, and advertising of early voting. As the Presidential Commission on Election Administration said, “[early voting] must be administered in an equitable manner so all voters can have equal opportunity to vote.” An effective early voting rollout in Massachusetts would utilize the best practices established in other states as evaluated by academic experts and others.
Early voting policies vary greatly from state to state, county to county, and municipality to municipality. This inconsistency makes data collection and analysis difficult. Still, the available data does lend itself to a few simple conclusions. Successful implementation of early voting in Massachusetts would include:
- A strong advertising/education program, so that all voters are aware of their early voting opportunities
- Multiple early voting locations in urban and suburban areas where lines are likely to be the longest and where a single location would be the most problematic due to population and geographic considerations
- Convenient hours (evenings and weekends) to facilitate the goals of early voting
- A plan to provide recommendations and predictions for budgeting, staffing, and ballot handling to municipal officials well in advance so that implementation of early voting goes as smoothly as possible