Editorial: Early voting in dynamic primary just feels wrong

About 13,000 Bostonians decided to cast their votes early at City Hall or at one of several satellite polling centers last week, according to figures shared with the Reporter by the city’s Election Department.  There’s probably a good chunk of those 13,000 people who’d wished they’d kept their ballot box powder dry before the weekend. 

Joe Biden, counted out as a legit contender in Massachusetts based on consistent polls ahead of last week, scored a huge victory in South Carolina on Saturday. The former vice-president under Barack Obama squeezed every drop of juice out of his landslide win and capped it off with back-to-back-to-back endorsements from former rivals Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke. 

By the time the actual election day rolled around on Tuesday, it was a very different contest on the Democrats’ side, but if you were one of the thousands of Bostonians who had already cast your lot, it mattered not. 

What did early voting look like on the ground here in Dorchester and Mattapan? It wasn’t really a huge draw. A total of 864 people showed up last Thursday to vote at one of the three places in our two neighborhoods. The breakdown was 441 at All Saints Church on Ashmont Street; 243 at Mildred Ave Community Center in Mattapan; and 180 at First Parish Church on Meetinghouse Hill.

Outside of City Hall, the largest turnout at a satellite location was Roche Community Center in West Roxbury, where 1,187 voters showed on Thursday. Copley Square Library recorded 1,625 voters on Tuesday. 

 “I’m voting early because it’s just much easier, it’s convenient,” said Ira Li, a Dorchester voter who stopped to talk to the Reporter as he exited First Parish Church on Thursday afternoon.  A woman named Margaret (who declined to give her last name) told us: “I came today because I work part-time and this is easier than rushing at the last minute and waiting in line.” 

It’s true that early voting can be a big time-saver. 

But in the context of this election— a fluid, dynamic primary featuring a large menu of choices and some excellent candidates— it seems wrong-headed. This is the first time Massachusetts has staged a week of early voting ahead of the March presidential primary. It says here that it should be the last.

Look at the results from Texas for further indicators that early voting can be skewed. Biden’s bounce out of South Carolina was reflected strongly in the Super Tuesday vote, but his competitors led the field in the early vote, according to reports from CNN and MSNBC. That’s likely true in every state that conducts early voting.

As we’ve all just witnessed over the last five days, the nature of the presidential primary season is so compact, so turbulent that it really makes sense to let the preponderance of evidence prevail upon voters’ ultimate decisions.

We all want to see more participation — and there are better ways to do it; namely, same-day registration, which is something Massachusetts lawmakers seem close to considering this session. But, if we decide to stage early voting in the future, let’s save it for the general election in November, when there is a set, binary choice in front of the electorate. Let’s give future primary voters every opportunity to have all of the facts at their disposal before filling in their ovals.

-Bill Forry