Everyone understands the headache that accompanies waiting until Election Day to cast a vote in their state. The prospect of waiting for hours in lines stretching down the sidewalk for several blocks just to fill out one short questionnaire is frustrating.
This year, however, Massachusetts decided to take an extra step to provide ease of access to voters by instituting early voting, a successful policy already in place in some shape or form in 33 other states across the United States as well as in the District of Columbia.
Thanks to tireless lobbying by fair voting organizations such as MassVOTE, Massachusetts officially adopted early voting in 2016. The bill, approved by the legislature in 2014, provided an early voting process for biennial state elections. Voters in Boston starting October 24 (two weeks before Election Day) could take advantage of one of the numerous locations in and around the city to cast their vote during normal business hours. As Kyron Owens of the Boston Elections Commission explained, the process was a big hit among Boston residents. He cited a total of 39,504 ballots cast between October 24 and November 2 alone.
“A lot of the feedback has been really positive,” said Owens. “Most people feel that it’s a great initiative—they find that the lines move quickly.”
Even with the many locations available, though, lines were still significantly long in some of the more popular locations such as Boston City Hall. Wait times closer to the end of the day sometimes ranged well over two hours. Cam Wilson, a resident of Jamaica Plain, said she tried to originally vote in her town, but the sheer number of people at the polling center forced her to come to City Hall. To her dismay, the wait times there were even worse.
“I came [to City Hall] and saw this line,” said Wilson. “About halfway along this line I asked somebody if she had any estimate of how long it would be and she said she had been in line for an hour … and here she was not even on the steps yet to go into City Hall.”
Owens said that as time went by, higher volumes of voters turned out at early voting locations and the Elections Commission put in place several measures to combat the increased flow.
“We’ve tried to have more poll workers than you’d typically see on Election Day at a polling location,” said Owens. “We’ve also added electronic poll books to the check-in process which is, makes it faster for a voter lookup instead of having 255 books that someone would have to look though.”
Even with the large number of people using early voting, college students like Emma Nash were not deterred from trying to vote before Election Day.
“I was overwhelmed, but I knew it was going to be worse on Tuesday,” said Nash, a sophomore at Northeastern University. “It was a success in terms of choosing a time that works for you because if you’re going to wait in line no matter what, at least it should be a time that you’re not stressing out about it.”
Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, a nonpartisan organization whose goal is to help educate and mobilize voters (particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised from voting), says she feels early voting has definitely made a difference in its initial year.
“It made a great difference—to have a million votes in the state of Massachusetts before Election Day is huge,” said Crawford.
Many states still do not have early voting systems, and even with states that have early voting systems many undecided voters may elect to wait until Election Day to give enough time to decide on a candidate.
“Early voting makes a lot of sense. It’s a good policy,” said Drew Penrose of the nonpartisan electoral reform organization Fair Vote. “It allows people to vote in a way that’s easier for them where they can have more access to information and it reduces the strain on polling places on Election Day.”
Penrose was also quick to caution that high turnout numbers in certain states this year probably didn’t correlate as much with voting access measures and instead had more to do with the fundamental change in opinion of voters.
“The reason people will get out to vote in high numbers is if they feel like the election really matters to them,” explained Penrose. “If people live in a safe state or district and they feel like their vote isn’t actually going to help elect anybody, then they’re less likely to vote. If you can address that first, make sure that when people vote their votes really count, then that will really drive up turnout a lot more than many of the efforts that people engage in to try to get people to vote.”
In the end, early voting was an attempt to help to simplify an act that historically Americans have held as a constitutional and moral right for citizens, and have fought long and hard to ensure for all Americans, regardless of race or gender.
“It’s critical because if you want your voice heard, if you want representation, you must go out and vote,” said Crawford. “It’s just a matter of making sure that you get your voice on record.”
This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.