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Nearly 1.2 million people have already voted in Massachusetts. The disparities are stark

By Matt Stout


One of every four registered voters in Massachusetts — and nearly 1.2 million in total — have already cast a ballot for the Nov. 3 election, underscoring a surge in early action that’s highest in wealthy, mostly white suburbs where most voters have embraced mail-in balloting.


Nearly half of the registered voters in communities such as Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord had already cast ballots 13 days ahead of Election Day and with still more than a week left of the state’s early in-person voting period. In Eastham, 49.5 percent of the outer Cape town’s 4,420 registered voters have returned ballots, the highest share of any town or city in Massachusetts, state data show.


The deluge of votes in those places and statewide is prompting Secretary of State William F. Galvin to readjust his expectations of what was already projected to be historic turnout, with “evidence mounting,” he said, “that we’ll be significantly exceeding” the more than 3.3 million ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election, itself a record.


“Anecdotally, we’re really getting down to the people who rarely vote, who are now calling to make sure they’re eligible,” Galvin said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I think that makes me believe the number above 3.3 [million] will be significant. The question is: How high can it go?”


With 1,177,856 ballots returned as of Wednesday, 25 percent of the state’s 4.66 million registered voters have already submitted their vote, with far more expected. About 2 million people have applied for a mail-in ballot or chosen to vote early, according to state data, though Galvin said he believes the number of mail-in applications is beginning to plateau as November approaches.


But even with expanded options to vote, turnout at this point is still soft in cities, underlining the divide officials and voting rights advocates have long identified between the state’s suburbs and its poorer, urban centers.


In Chelsea, one of the state’s poorest communities, just 8 percent of its 18,200 registered voters have returned ballots. In Springfield and Lawrence — where Hispanic or Latino residents account for 45 and 80 percent of the population, respectively — fewer than 11 percent have. Cities such as Lowell and New Bedford have also seen similar turnout so far.

Boston has accounted for the most total ballots cast so far, with 62,000 returned, accounting for about 15 percent of its 420,200 registered voters.


Galvin said the figures are consistent with voting four years ago, when the early voting period drew out more than 1 million people, many of whom were suburban or elderly voters, while voters in cities largely waited until Election Day itself.


This year, expanded mail-in voting has dramatically increased the number of those voting ahead time. But its proliferation may not capture as many low-income and immigrant voters, advocates say, as well as renters, who tend to be more transient than homeowners.


“I’m ecstatic with the numbers that are turning out, and I’m feeling excited that people are engaging and engaging early. But unfortunately it’s not surprising we’re seeing disparity in turnout‚” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of the advocacy group, MassVOTE.


“The differences between our urban and suburban communities are glaring. Inequality is ingrained in them. It’s easy for suburban residents to vote because they don’t have to face as many hurdles to voting as urban residents do.”


Other factors could factor into the early returns. Older, suburban voters tend to vote more quickly than younger or newer ones, who often wait until facing a deadline or Election Day itself, said Eitan Hersh, a Tufts University political science professor who studies elections and voter behavior.


The changes officials made amid the pandemic — including adding days to the early voting period and creating no-excuse absentee balloting — may also be feeding into participation bias, he said.


“You try to make voting easier, but in a lot of these situations, you just make it easier for rich people” who would vote anyway, Hersh said. Voting reforms often "don’t make voting across socioeconomic lines more equal.”


Election officials say they see encouraging trends, nonetheless. More than 3,000 people in Springfield have registered to vote in the seven weeks since the state’s September primary, said Gladys Oyola-Lopez, the city’s election commissioner. And more than 24,000 voters have requested mail-in ballots or voted early, well beyond the 11,100 ballots submitted so far.


Oyola-Lopez still expects the majority of the city’s voters will opt to cast a ballot on Election Day. Galvin, the state’s top election official, has said he personally intends to vote in person on Nov. 3, and this month projected anywhere from one-third to half of all voters statewide ultimately will, too.


“We have people who are in the tradition of doing their ballots in person on Election Day," Oyola-Lopez said. "They believe honestly that that’s the safest and the best way, to cast it themselves.”


The experience has so far been dramatically different in some suburban communities. Forty-six percent of the Concord’s 14,000 registered voters have already returned ballots in a town where turnout regularly tops other communities. In 2016, for example, 86 percent of its residents voted in the presidential election, 11 points higher than the statewide average.


“That’s not unusual. It’s how people are voting,” said town clerk Kaari Mai Tari. Many voters who initially requested to vote by mail are ultimately choosing to come to an in-person early voting site instead, she said. On any given day, the town has 10 volunteers either working early voting or helping process mail-in ballots.


“We’re hopeful that it won’t be as crazy a day as presidential elections usually are: Lines out the door, all day long,” she said.


Valerie Fox — the town clerk in Lincoln, where 46 percent of its 4,800 voters have cast ballots — said the town has also benefited from a close working relationship with the local post office, which she said regularly gets ballots to her office the day they’re mailed.


It’s a far cry from warnings the US Postal Service issued in July that ballots cast by mail for the November election could arrive late, even if sent before the state-imposed deadline.


“I think people are very eager to make sure they get their ballots into us,” Fox said. “I do expect it to be significantly quieter” on Election Day.


This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe. Check it out here!

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