Massachusetts Elections: How to Vote and What’s On the Ballot

The 2020 election is barely a month away, and we all know that it’s going to be a strange one. Understandably, the race for the White House has dominated most of the news, but we can’t forget that most of the governing happens at a local level (where there’s no electoral college to stand between the voters and their choices). For this article, I’m going to cover the basics of voting in Massachusetts, what is on the state-wide ballot, and (try to) give a neutral breakdown. 

Registering to Vote

    The registration deadline for Massachusetts elections is October 24, 2020. There’s a good chance you’ve been registered automatically, but you can check your status here. If you aren’t registered, you can fix that either online here or through the mail here. Either way, you will need some valid form of Massachusetts ID with your name and address, like a driver’s license or state ID card. If you don’t have a Massachusetts ID (i.e. you don’t drive), just print it out, sign it, and mail it in as soon as you can to your town clerk. The contact information for every election commissioner in Massachusetts can be found here.

Voting By Mail

    Because of you-know-what, Massachusetts is allowing all eligible citizens to vote by mail this year. To register for absentee voting, mail or email this form to your local election commissioner. If you plan to vote by mail and haven’t registered already, I recommend you do it soon; applications received after October 28 will not be accepted. Once it arrives and you fill it out, mail it back to your local election office (directory above) as soon as you can. It must be postmarked before or by November 3, and it must be back at your local election office by November 6. It’s also worth noting that there is no need for a stamp; postage on mail-in ballots is prepaid. The state website also has a feature to track your ballot here.

In-Person Voting (Before / On Election Day)

    Massachusetts early voting begins on October 17 and ends on October 30. You can find your polling location here, and polls are typically open from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM. But by October 9, all the voting schedules and locations for all of the Bay State’s towns and cities will be found at www.MassEarlyVote.com. Massachusetts has no voter ID requirements, but upon checking in, you may be asked to show some identification if: a) you are a first-time voter, b) you have not been an active voter for some time, c) there is reason to suspect the authenticity of your ballot, or d) the poll worker has “reasonable suspicion” about you being a Massachusetts voter. Bring your driver’s license, state ID, paycheck, utility bill, or any other proof of your name and address just in case.   

Poll Workers:

    In-person election sites need poll workers to run smoothly, to check in voters, distribute ballots, tally votes, and generally help voters find their way around the polling place. This year, poll workers will also be tasked with sanitizing booths and pens and making sure that everyone maintains safe social distancing. A lot of poll workers are retirees or immuno-compromised, which puts them at risk for infection. Thus, younger and healthier people (presumably including some of our readers) are encouraged to sign up to be poll workers this year. You can find out if you qualify to work the polls in your area at www.PowerThePolls.org. If you meet the requirements and have the time, consider reaching out to your area’s election commission with the contact information here.  It’s a great way to earn some extra money and do your civic duty for Massachusetts.

    Now that we’ve established how to vote, let’s get into what exactly is on the ballot. Ballotpedia has an excellent Sample Ballot Lookup here to identify who is running for what all across Massachusetts. We all know the presidential and other federal-level candidates pretty well by now, and covering the State Senate and State House  races would call for another article altogether. So in the interest of simplicity, I will stick with two items that will be on every Massachusetts ballot: the ballot measures.

The “Right to Repair” Initiative

    Question 1 has garnered the most conversation this year. This is no replacement for simply reading the proposed law (which can be found here along with a host of other useful documents), but in brief, it proposes that starting in 2022, manufacturers that sell vehicles with telematics systems — defined by the measure as “systems that collect and wirelessly transmit mechanical data to a remote server”—must equip said systems with an onboard “standardized open access data platform.” According to Ballotpedia, the information gathered by these systems usually include “collision detection, emergency assistance, roadside assistance, vehicle diagnostics, media streaming, and geo-fencing.”

The mechanical information that these systems collect would then be sent to the vehicle owner, or whomever the owner consents to operate on the vehicle, to use to “retrieve mechanical data from, and send commands to, the vehicle for repair, maintenance, and diagnostic testing.” The change from the existing law is that now, the manufacturer does not need to authorize the owner or independent repair facility to access this information — it would be built into the vehicle. Additionally, car dealers and manufacturers could be prosecuted by the Attorney General for keeping said information from the owner or the person the owner wants to fix their vehicle, “up to and including revocation” of their dealer’s license, and the violations could be “compensable by an award of treble damages or $10,000” to the owner.

    The most common argument against Question 1 posits that if this law is passed, it would pose a cybersecurity risk to information about vehicles and the people who drive them, given the bill’s vague definition of “security.” The website for the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, Question 1’s primary opponent, describes the proposed law as “misleading and ill-conceived” while offering “nothing to improve the consumer experience” that will “help hackers, strangers, and criminals gain real-time, remote access to consumer vehicles and driving data - including vehicles operating on the road.” “It is not just your local, independent repair shop that will have access to this data,” they continue. “It is a broader network of individuals whose intentions can’t be carefully monitored.” Potential bad actors that they list are advertisers looking to market products based on location and driving habits, tech-savvy carjackers, or abusers looking to stalk or harm their victims. According to their website as well as the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, donors to this campaign include General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Honda, Audi, BMW, Mazda, Nissan, and Volvo.

    The campaign in  favor of Question 1 is spearheaded by the Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee, who make the case that Question 1 is about protecting consumer choice and local businesses from “the big automakers.” “Voting YES provides access ONLY to mechanical and repair information, not personal information,” writes the Right to Repair Committee’s director Tom Hickey. Their website adds, “[B]ig auto is using the next generation of wireless technology to get around the law and shut out independent repair shops...Beacon Hill needs to update the law to protect the right of car owners to shop around for vehicle repair.  Consumers deserve the right to take their car to any repair shop that they want.” The Office of Campaign and Political Finance lists AutoZone, Advance Auto Parts, Auto Care Association, and O’Reilly Auto Parts among the campaign’s donors.

The Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative

    Considerably less ink has been spilled related to Question 2, which, if passed, would enact ranked-choice voting in primary and general elections for statewide offices, state legislative offices, and federal congressional offices beginning in 2022.” As the name implies, in a ranked-choice voting system, instead of selecting one candidate, the voters rank the candidates in order of preference; they are also welcome to continue to select only one candidate. Under the new law, votes would be conducted in a series of rounds. If a candidate earns 50% or more of the first-choice votes, the tabulation would end there. But if no candidate gets a simple majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes would be eliminated. Then second-choice votes for each candidate would be tallied whoever has the fewest would be eliminated, and so on until we reach a candidate with a simple majority who represents the preferences of the majority of Massachusetts voters. The presidential, county commissioner, and members of regional school district committees would not change under the new law. Should it pass, the Secretary of State would be deputized with implementing the change and educating voters about it.

    The most prominent supporter of Question 2 is Voter Choice Massachusetts. They argue that this system would make it more likely that every vote counts towards the end result, and encourages civility among candidates and constituents. In an article in Commonwealth Magazine, their executive director Mac D'Alessandro, along with Kevin Johnson, executive director of Election Reformers Network, wrote, “Voters could be confident that if their favorite candidate can’t win, their second or third choice would still count toward determining the winner. Candidates wouldn’t be pressured to bow out early to avoid splitting the vote. Party primaries could be relied on to produce a candidate with broad support. We’d see more civility on the campaign trail since candidates would need to appeal to voters outside of their base, including those backing their opponents.” The Massachusetts Democratic and Libertarian Parties endorse ranked-choice voting, as do organizations such as Amplify LatinX, Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, League of Women Voters, and Unite America.

General opposition to ranked-choice voting comes from Protect My Ballot, which describes ranked-choice voting as “confusing” and “counter to the democratic process,” and makes the case that it “disenfranchises voters, especially minorities.” The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance opposes it specifically in the context of Question 2. In their argument summary, they concur that the system is convoluted and not necessarily better for informed voter choice, and add, “Ranked Choice Voting ballots force voters to guess the candidates who will remain standing in multiple voting rounds and cast their votes in the dark. If they guess wrong and vote for eliminated candidates, their ballots are not counted in the final vote. Winners win a false ‘majority’ of remaining ballots, not a true majority of all the voters voting in the election.” 

In Conclusion...

I am no stranger to political corruption, gerrymandering, and the widespread social issues that can’t be solved by the ballot box alone. But voting is, and always has been, a democracy’s most useful tool towards social change. Whatever you agree with in this election cycle, the most important thing is to cast your vote. Do the research, make a voting plan, and make your voice heard in a language that governing bodies understand.