The decision by Tisbury not to allow voting by mail during the town election in the spring is puzzling.
Tisbury is the only town on Martha’s Vineyard that will be opting out of what has widely been cited as a boon to voter access. Edgartown, Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs all are allowing residents to vote by mail, as they should.
It’s too early to tell for sure that voter turnout has improved since the statewide rollout of voting by mail, but its convenience for voters can’t be ignored.
The new system of “vote by mail” was introduced in 2020 during the pandemic, with the obvious intention of stopping the spread of COVID-19. Based on the success from the 2020 presidential election, state lawmakers passed a law extending the Votes Act, or “An Act fostering voter opportunities, trust, equity, and security.” The bill was signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. The law requires towns to provide the option of voting by mail for state elections, midterms, primaries, and presidential elections. Cities and towns that don’t want to offer voting by mail in local town elections can choose to opt out.
There are issues with the new, alternative form of voting. Some town clerks call it an unfunded mandate. The state has imposed the new rules without providing a means to pay for it.
And town clerks have a lot more work. They are required to send out applications to all voters, log any requests for ballots onto a state database, send ballots out to voters who request them, log again when the ballot is sent out, wait for the ballot to be returned, and note in the log again the ballots that are returned. That’s more stamps, logging, and legwork than prior to vote-by-mail guidelines.
Some bigger towns — like Barnstable — have needed more space at town hall to store envelopes and ballots to be sent out to voters.
There’s also an issue with mailing. As was the case recently in Tisbury, a bundle of six ballots were delivered back to the town about two weeks after the election.
These are issues that can be worked out.
The most important question is turnout: By allowing voting by mail, are more ballots being cast?
State Secretary Bill Galvin’s office says the jury is still out. There’s been no statewide study yet, mostly because the sample size is too small.
Looking at recent elections, voter turnout was record-breaking during the 2020 presidential election. Seventy-six percent of registered voters in Massachusetts turned out, about 300,000 more than the previous record. But then voter turnout was down a little from previous midterms last year. You could chalk both of those up to exciting, or not so exciting, elections.
There are signs, however, of increased voter turnout on the Vineyard from voting by mail. West Tisbury town clerk Tara Whiting says they’ve had higher turnout in recent years, with many voters choosing to cast their ballots through the mail. Whiting, along with town clerks elsewhere on the Island, places an application for voting by mail in with that year’s census, boosting the visibility of the town election, which likely helps.
We should also consider that we are only a few years into the new voting option, so there is the possibility that more people will jump onboard. The town clerk in Chilmark, Jennifer Christy, makes an interesting analogy to bus service. If you offer a bus route every half-hour, your first few runs probably won’t be a full bus. But as the service becomes more and more consistent, it’ll start to catch on. We could be only at the beginning of higher turnouts from mail-in voting.
But even disregarding turnout, the ease that the new alternative provides is priceless. Voters like it. Galvin’s office said that nearly 40 percent of ballots cast in last year’s midterms were cast by mail. That’s remarkable.
Making voting easier is a good thing, and as the overseer of local elections, making voting easier should be a very high priority for a town clerk, second only to holding an accurate and fair election.
In Tisbury, in the same meeting where the town’s select board agreed that voting by mail was not needed, they also commented on how poor voter turnout was — 2022 saw 552 voters during the annual town election; the 2021 town election saw 1,054 voters, a higher turnout likely because of the Tisbury School project.
The explanation was that there is not a large demand for voting by mail, even though the town has never allowed mail-in voting for a local election.
We think Tisbury should reconsider. Given the time, more residents could participate, and their turnout could get better. It could only help.
It’s hard to think about Tisbury elections without thinking about the vote on the Tisbury School from 2018, when residents rejected a call to fund a new school by just a few votes. The rest of the story is well-known — no Massachusetts School Building Authority funding, and a large headache for school and town officials. What if it had been easier to cast a ballot in 2018? The results might have been a little different.