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Massachusetts braces for high voter turnout by mail

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Amid growing concerns over operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service, Massachusetts officials are bracing for a primary election with high voter turnout driven largely by mail ballots next month.  

Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin on Tuesday said more than a million Massachusetts voters have requested mail ballots for the upcoming elections, and roughly 150,000 have already cast votes for the Sept. 1 primary.

There are currently 4.5 million registered voters in Massachusetts. A million voters haven’t turned out for a state primary election since 2006, according to election data.

The influx of so many mail ballots is a welcome sign to some campaigns hoping for high voter turnout, but it comes as tensions are mounting across the country over the Postal Service.

The federal agency largely responsible for ensuring ballots travel between voters and election officials in a timely manner has recently come under fire for cost-cutting measures that could delay mail around the elections.

Postal Service general counsel Thomas Marshall wrote a letter to Galvin dated July 30 saying in part there’s “a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them.”

The deadline to request a mail ballot in Massachusetts is just six days before the election.

Similar letters were sent to states across the country, most of them with warnings. Rhode Island’s letter had the opposite message, with Marshall indicating the three-week gap between the mail ballot application deadline and the primary was sufficient to deliver the ballots in time.

Galvin fired back at the post office Tuesday, calling the operational changes and delay warning inappropriate.

“I’m concerned about it,” he said during a news conference at the State House. “The Postal Service has been able to provide ballot delivery even during wars, so I don’t understand why this is such a problem and I really have to wonder about the motivation.”

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is an ally of President Donald Trump, who often claims without evidence that mail ballot voting will result in widespread fraud. Facing fierce public pushback, DeJoy said Tuesday he would bring an end to the controversial changes until after the General Election on for Nov. 3.

In an attempt to ensure the elections run smoothly in Massachusetts, Galvin’s office created a series of new rules, including authorizing cities and towns to preprocess mail ballots ahead of Election Day.

Cities and towns are hoping the new rule – which has long been on the wish list of local election officials – could help alleviate some of the burden of counting votes on Election Day. Election officials are not allowed to tabulate or count the preprocessed votes until after the polls close.

In addition to making life easier for election officials, preprocessing ballots could also translate into quicker results reported on Election Day. Galvin’s office doesn’t officially certify election results until 15 days after the polls close, but Massachusetts cities and towns have a longstanding agreement with the Associated Press to report unofficial election results after they have been counted.

The timing this year could boil down to how many mail ballots are submitted in the time after local election officials print their voting lists, as those ballots would need to be counted and then crosschecked against the list to ensure nobody voted twice, according to election officials.

The process could take longer in more affluent communities, which typically have higher rates of mail ballot voting, according to election officials. The dynamic could play out in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III in the 4th Congressional District.

The Democratic primary is stacked with candidates from Brookline and Newton, two communities with relatively high median household incomes, meaning election officials could be especially busy. Becky Grossman, one of eight candidates, has already announced her campaign plans to sue Massachusetts over its policies surrounding mail ballots.

“Without action, voters risk not having their ballots received in time,” Grossman told WPRI 12 earlier this week. “That is not OK. That is not acceptable. And I won’t stand for it.”

In the southern end of the district, however, Fall River Board of Elections chairperson Kelly Souza-Young said she isn’t too concerned about the influx of mail ballots, adding the city has even opted against preprocessing ballots.

“We have a system with our poll workers, and it works well,” Souza-Young said.

The city as of Tuesday had received mail ballots equaling about 14% of registered voters, according to Souza-Young, which already exceeds overall turnout in the last two state primaries.  

“I expect it to keep growing,” she said.

Voters can continue to apply for mail ballots until Aug. 26, and even if people request ballots, they can still vote in person as long as they don’t also return a mail ballot. Galvin said Tuesday voting in person will be “safer than going to many supermarkets.”

In Fall River, Souza-Young said the city is working with the local post office to ensure quicker turnaround times for ballots. She’s also encouraging anyone who might be skeptical to come deliver their ballots to a drop box in the lobby of Government Center, where a police officer is standing by.

“We’d like 100% turnout,” Souza-Young said. “The 14% is good, but it’s not good enough.”  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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