Uncertainty over mail-in ballots, an effort to avoid large crowds during the pandemic, and simple practicality were all motivators that sent voters to the polls Saturday morning for the first day of early voting. Lines of voters started forming quickly across Island towns as soon as polling locations opened. In Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, a socially distanced and steady line of about 15 people formed soon after opening, and lasted for more than an hour. In West Tisbury and Chilmark, though crowds were sparser, the flow of voters was just as constant.
While it opened Saturday, early voting continues through Oct. 30 in Massachusetts, including on Sundays.
The participation rate for in-person early voting was relatively steady across Island towns, hovering around 10 percent. In Oak Bluffs, a high of 12.56 percent of registered voters cast their ballots early and in-person as of Tuesday evening. As of Monday evening, the number was 9.9 percent in Tisbury and 7.4 percent in Edgartown, while by Tuesday midday, the numbers were 8 percent in Chilmark, 7.5 percent in West Tisbury, and 7.4 percent in Aquinnah.
Some of the most frequent reasons cited for early voting were uncertainty over the capacity of the Postal Service to efficiently and properly handle the myriad of mail-in ballots, distrust of the government’s handling of the election, or a mix of both.
“I did consider doing mail-in voting, but with everything that has been going on with the postal system, it just seems a little sketchy, so I just wanted to make sure,” said Kenneth Vincent, who voted in Tisbury.
Jessica and Greg Mason, who voted in Chilmark, said they initially aimed to mail their ballots, but the increasing uncertainty about the Postal Service’s reliability and ability to properly handle many mail-in ballots prompted them to change course. “We had actually filled out the early mail-in request, and when all the stuff started happening about mail not being counted, then we decided not to do it that way and do early voting instead,” Greg Mason said.
This uncertainty about the Postal Service’s ability to handle ballots was shared by many. “The mess that the Post Office was in this summer made me worry about voting by mail,” said Oak Bluffs voter Barbara Rush. “And I work full-time, and so sometimes Election Day it can be stressful to make sure that I get here, so I thought the opportune thing to do is to come in and do early voting.”
For others, distrust seemed to be aimed at the current administration’s undermining of the election. Such was the case for Chesca Quinlan-Potter, who has been living in Washington, D.C., for a few months, but coincidentally returned to the Island this weekend to visit family. Quinlan-Potter decided to vote in person because she didn’t trust mail-in voting. “They are just finding any reason to make your vote not count, so I wanted to do it the safest way,” Quinlan-Potter said.
In contrast to in-person voting, the numbers for mail-in voting were more disparate across towns. Mail-in voting was most popular in Aquinnah, where out of 418 registered voters, 96, or about 23 percent, had returned their ballots for mail-in voting. Next was Chilmark, where about 20.4 percent of registered voters had mailed in their ballots so far. The town with the lowest number of returned mail-in ballots was Tisbury, where out of 3,661 registered voters, only 50 voters, or about 1.4 percent, had returned their mail-in ballots as of Monday. Edgartown saw 461 mail-in ballots returned, representing 11.3 percent of registered voters, while Oak Bluffs received ballots from 1.9 percent of its voters. West Tisbury mailed out 1,050 mail-in ballots to voters, but did not have accessible data on the number of mail-in ballots returned.
All town clerks said that early voting, whether in person or by mail, was going well. “Everything is going very smoothly in Chilmark,” town clerk Jennifer Christy wrote in an email. “There has been a steady stream of voters every day … The voters are using all their options — in person, by mail and the drop box … so far so good,” Oak Bluffs town clerk Colleen Morris wrote in an email.
The safety of voting on the Vineyard was also mentioned by voters. “I decided not to do mail-in ballot because I felt safe voting in person here on the Vineyard, with the infection rate so low,” Jacqueline Swan, another Oak Bluffs voter, said.
Shirley Desilva, despite the unprecedented circumstances surrounding this year’s election, voted for the first time in Oak Bluffs on Wednesday. She was accompanied by Dolores Littles, a friend whose house she cleans. “I’m so excited,” Desilva said upon exiting the polls. She said voting was her “contribution to the county.” She described the process as “very easy,” and the ballot as “very easy to understand.”
Other voters also explained that beyond the uncertainty of the circumstances, the importance of 2020’s election also prompted them to vote as soon as possible. “It is incredibly important to vote these days, because we need to change things big-time,” said Diane Whittier in Oak Bluffs. “The way this country is going is not good, so I have to do my part to make that big change to get things on the right track again.”
Similarly, for Jessica Mason, voting today did not feel early at all. “I’ve been waiting for four years to have the opportunity to vote and to make my voice heard, so it’s really exciting to get out on the first day we could possibly get out and participate in the democratic process,” Mason said.
Where and when you can vote early
West Tisbury, Public Safety Building: weekdays, 8:30 am to 1:30 pm; weekends, 9 to 11 am.
Oak Bluffs, Oak Bluffs library: weekdays, 8:30 am to 4 pm, weekends; 8:30 to 10:30 am.
Edgartown, Town Hall: weekdays, 8 am to 4 pm; Saturdays, 2 pm to 4 pm, Sundays, 10 am to noon.
Tisbury, Emergency Services Facility: weekdays, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm; weekends, 10 am to noon.
Chilmark, Town Hall: weekdays, 8 am to noon (except Thursdays, 8 am to noon and 4 to 7 pm); weekends 10 am to noon.
Aquinnah, Town Hall: weekdays, 8:30 am to 1:30 pm; weekends 10 am to noon.