Ballot questions drawing voters more than candidates, Galvin says

Sam Doran
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Races for governor, other statewide offices, and most legislative seats aren’t generating much enthusiasm — it’s the four ballot questions that voters seem to be agonizing over, the state’s top elections official said Monday.

Longtime State Secretary William Galvin forecast that around 2.2 million of the state’s 4.8 million registered voters, or around 45 percent, will cast ballots this cycle.

“I hope I’m wrong,” Galvin said of his estimate.

If his projection tracks, voter participation would be down sharply from the 60 percent turnout in the last midterm and gubernatorial election in 2018, and that’s despite the addition of mail-in voting options that were not in place for the election four years ago and are designed to boost turnout.

It would also ebb to a low water mark for general election turnout in Massachusetts, at least over the past 74 years, according to online data from the secretary’s office that dates back to 1948.

More than 1.02 million Bay Staters have already voted, either by mailing in their ballot or voting early in person, pinning current voter turnout at 21 percent as of 4 p.m. Monday, according to an update from Galvin’s office.

Although voters will select a new governor and at least three other statewide officials, Galvin said that “there seems to be almost an anti-climactic attitude towards this election” and that it was lacking “tremendous enthusiasm,” with the exception of a handful of heated district races and the four ballot questions appearing before voters.

As voters sift through “contradictory and expensive” advertising messages around some of those questions and decide which bubble to fill in, Galvin called this cycle less of a midterm election and more of a “midterm exam.”

Hotbutton topics like taxes and immigration play into this year’s set of questions, which provide a direct way for voters to weigh in on specific issues — but they have to decode them first.

“I can tell you myself, not only has my office received more questions about the questions, but if I walk down the street, people want to know, ‘What about Question 1? Do you — ‘ And, you know, I haven’t gotten into details because I’m not actively involved in the campaigns,” the Brighton Democrat said.

He added, “If there’s any momentum behind going out to vote tomorrow, above everything else, it’s the questions.”

Galvin referred voters to summaries of the four questions, published in print and online by his office, for more information about the measures to impose a surtax on household incomes over $1 million, further regulate dental insurers, alter the state’s alcohol licensing laws, and decide whether to uphold a new law that will make driver’s licenses available to immigrants without legal status.

Because of the questions’ verbiage, which in some municipalities are translated into multiple languages, Galvin said voters should be “quite careful” to flip over the ballot in case some questions spill onto the reverse side in their city or town.

In addition to the Constitutional offices that “haven’t been that exciting for most voters,” the secretary added that many local races are either uncontested or “not seriously” contested.

“So the likelihood of really close races — there are a few parts of the state where there are some local contests, and I’m looking to those places to have somewhat better turnouts, but there are not many,” Galvin said.

He pointed to Barnstable County as one hotspot, with a three-way race for an open House seat and competitive campaigns for sheriff and district attorney. The county is also an area of “very high” participation in voting-by-mail, Galvin said.

There have been “slightly” more hits on his “Where Do I Vote?” website than in 2018, which Galvin said was a possible indicator of more interest from young people since they may be less likely to know the location of their polling place.

Of the 1.02 million ballots already cast, the secretary’s office reported, more than 188,000 people voted in person as part of the early voting period, and more than 839,000 shipped back their ballots to clerks’ offices through the mail.

Of the 1,129,522 ballots that were mailed out after voters requested them, 74.3 percent had been returned as of the Monday afternoon update.

Mail-in ballots will be counted if they are postmarked by Tuesday and received by clerks within three mail-delivery days, though Galvin said mailing them on this tight a timeline is risky because the U.S. Postal Service has been “slow and unreliable.” He cautioned people still holding onto mail-in ballots to take them to an official ballot dropbox in their city or town.

The 2014 election, which saw Republican Charlie Baker best Democrat Martha Coakley by less than 2 percentage points in the race for governor, holds the current record for lowest turnout (in the records dating back to 1948) with 50.84 percent of registered voters participating.

The highest midterm turnout in the past 74 years was the 1962 election, in which more than 81 percent of registered voters took part in an even closer gubernatorial race when Democrat Endicott Peabody picked off incumbent Republican Gov. John Volpe by less than 1 percent of votes cast.

Galvin also reflected Monday on the shifting tide of party enrollment in the Bay State.

More than 61 percent of registered voters are now unenrolled, or “independent,” which he called “remarkably high.” The Massachusetts Democratic Party counts below 30 percent of voters in its membership, and 8.9 percent of voters are enrolled in the state Republican Party.

“It is very much an independent state. It’s never been more of an independent voter mix than it is now,” Galvin said, adding that “suggests there is this sort of freeness on the part of voters to participate when they see something, and nothing has sort of engaged them.”

Polls are open across the state from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

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