Vote-by-mail victory? City and town clerks cite high turnouts, credit mail-in ballots as key factor

NORTHAMPTON —  In the 2018 state primary, 625 people in Northampton voted by mail through an absentee ballot, according to City Clerk Pam Powers. This year, around 10,000 people requested mail-in ballots — and voter turnout increased in the city.

“It’s definitely improved the overall voter turnout,” Powers said of voting by mail. About 53% of registered voters cast ballots in the primary, up from a 45% turnout in the 2018 state primary.

Turnout was high for the state primary election in western Massachusetts, and many clerks agree that mail-in voting — along with heated, high-stakes races — was key. In July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law that required the state to send out applications for mail-in primary ballots. Statewide, more than 1.5 million people cast ballots, The Boston Globe reported. Numbers will be finalized by Monday, Debra O’Malley, spokeswoman for Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin, told the Gazette. In the meantime, Galvin told the Globe it would be a record showing.

The breakdown

Half of registered voters in Easthampton cast ballots, according to information from City Clerk Barbara LaBombard.

“I think the two races definitely added to the interest,” she said, referring to races between U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III and between Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. “But a lot of people probably wouldn’t have voted” without the mail-in option, she said. “I don’t think the interest in the two races is what gave us the 51%.”

The last three state primaries, between 11% and 17% of voters came out, LaBombard noted.

In Amherst, 7,122 voters cast ballots, totaling a 43% turnout — a significant jump from 2016 and 2018 primary elections, in which voter turnout was 24% and 27%, respectively.

While Amherst did not have data available yet for the number of people who voted in person or by mail, Assistant Town Clerk Susan Audette said the election involved “many, many more people because of the voting through the mail option, no doubt about it.”

Hadley demonstrated an even more dramatic increase, drawing a record high turnout for a primary, according to Town Clerk Jessica Spanknebel. Tuesday’s primary drew a 47% voter turnout, compared to 14% in the 2016 primary and slightly under 30% in the 2018 primary.

“It fluctuates, but we’ve never had this high of a turnout for the primary,” Spanknebel said.

In Goshen, about 54% of people voted. Town Clerk Kristen Estelle was “thrilled” with the turnout, which was higher than the 42% turnout for the state primary in 2018 and the 18% turnout in 2016.

Leverett and Shutesbury both had more than half of eligible voters participate in the election: Shutesbury reported a turnout of 59%, and Leverett reported a turnout of 55% — “much higher than other primaries,” according to Leverett Town Clerk Lisa Stratford.

South Hadley and Deerfield both had a 46% voter turnout; Sunderland reported 41%; Granby 38%; Belchertown 38%; Holyoke 34%; and Ware 27%. Pelham had yet to report results by 3 p.m. on Thursday.

In most Valley cities and towns with available data, the majority of people voted by mail. Sixty-three percent of votes in Easthampton were by mail. In smaller communities, the trend held up, too. Sixty-nine percent of Hatfield voters cast ballots in the mail, 71% in Worthington, and 61% in Chesterfield.

Just over 60% of voters cast ballots in Williamsburg, according to Brenda Lessard, the town clerk, who has held that job for 13 years. Turnout is “never this high for a primary,” she said, adding that voting by mail played a role in the increase.

Looking to November 

Advocates for voting by mail took heart in the results.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the bad news, but let’s take a moment to savor the fact that almost 1.4 MILLION people voted in the Massachusetts primary,” Attorney General Maura Healey tweeted Thursday. “Early voting and vote-by-mail WORK.”

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director at MassVOTE, wrote in a statement that “Voter turnout in the September 1 Primary makes one thing abundantly clear — vote by mail should be here to stay,”

Voters turning to mail-in ballots also meant more work for city and town clerks. Between stuffing ballots, entering applications and printing labels, “It’s a very manual, time-consuming project to mail every single ballot,” LaBombard said.

Powers agreed — she spent many nights answering emails, processing applications, and mailing ballots until 10 p.m. Many voters had questions. “We got hundreds, if not thousands of phone calls, during this election, saying, ‘Where’s my ballot?’” Powers said.

“I think it does make it easier for the voter, but it does put a lot of work on a select few people,” Lessard said.

Locally, the vote-by-mail process wasn’t without some wrinkles. Two people in Northampton got the wrong ballots due to data entry and processing mistakes, Powers said, noting, “We’re humans.”

Would-be voters by mail were notified if there were issues with their applications so they could vote in person. Northampton resident Mike Kirby filled out an application to vote by mail but never received one, he wrote in a recent letter to the editor. Powers said that was because he didn’t specify which party’s ballot he wanted. Though, she added, “‘I don’t like to blame the voter.”

In Easthampton, about a dozen mail-in ballots arrived at City Hall on Wednesday — a day late — but that’s not uncommon. “That always happens,” said LaBombard.

“I have to say it’s been a tremendous amount of man hours going into this,” Powers said, “but we’re in good shape to make it happen for November.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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