A post-election audit of randomly selected precincts in Massachusetts found minimal errors in ballot counting during the 2020 presidential election, offering more evidence to contrast with allegations of widespread fraud stemming from the use of mail-in voting.
Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, embarked on a massive mail-in voting experiment to boost turnout for the presidential election amid the worst public health crises in modern history. The results: a record 76 percent of registered voters casting ballots during the last presidential election cycle.
Municipalities are advocating for the extension of the measures through June as over 250 towns have scheduled elections between April 1 and June 30. The House and Senate are advancing a voting reform extension bill, with the Senate unamimously approving its version on Thursday.
In the lead up to the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump and many of his political allies denounced mail-in voting, baselessly alleging a nationwide conspiracy of fraud "specifically focused on big cities, and specifically focused on, as you would imagine, big cities controlled by Democrats," said Rudy Guiliani, the former lawyer for Trump.
"How come every time they count Mail-In ballot dumps they are so devastating in their percentage and power of destruction?" Trump tweeted a day after the Nov. 3 election.
All told, 41 percent of Massachusetts residents who voted in the general election opted to use mail-in voting and another 23 percent voted early in-person, according to Secretary of State William Galvin's office.
A post-election audit released by the Massachusetts secretary of state's office found a low number of errors in ballot counting across the 66 precincts randomly selected to undergo inspection.
The audit covered all ballots counted through election night, and included all ballots cast in person on election day, all in-person early ballots, and all mail ballots received and counted by election day. The audit did not encompass ballots counted after election day including domestic ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 6 and overseas ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and recieved by Nov. 13.
The secretary's elections division reported 100,349 ballots were counted in those precincts on Election Night and the audit resulted in 73 additional ballots being counted — a number that represents 0.07 percent of audited ballots.
Deb O'Malley, a spokeswoman for Galvin's office, said the 2020 audit was only the second time the office has conducted a post-election survey. The first occurred after the 2016 presidential election following the passage of a 2014 law mandating the audit after every presidential general election.
"The point was to make sure that our machines were counting the ballots accurately, which became a lot more relevant when people were questioning that," she said. "The tabulators seem to be accurate and function as you would expect."
Results of the post-election audit appear to line up with the public's trust in the state's election system.
A WBUR/MassINC poll conducted in August 2020 found that 45 percent of respondents were "very confident" that the state's elections would be conducted in a "free and fair manner" with only 8 percent saying they were "not at all confident."
The poll surveyed 501 respondents with 166 identifying as Democrats, 51 as Republicans, and 284 as Independent or "other." Of the Republicans, 11 percent responded as "not at all confident" compared to only 3 percent of Democrats.
Changes in the number of ballots counted, according to the audit, were likely due to tabulator jams and poll worker error in reading messages on tabulators indicating whether or not the jammed ballot had actually been counted. Of the 66 precincts surveyed, 47 reported no changes in the number of ballots cast while 14 reported changes of fewer than five ballots.
A majority of the 73 additional ballots were found in four precincts where local officials said poll workers "failed to tally a small number of ballots not read by the machine, which should have been hand-counted by the poll workers on Election Night," the audit said.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris garnered 59 additional votes as a result of the audit while Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence received 29 fewer votes than counted on Election Night.
University of Massachusetts Boston Political Science Professor Maurice Cunningham said the audit report is consistent with what is known nationally about mail-in voting: "which is that mail-in voting was a huge success."
"It raised participation, and in a democracy that's what we want," he said. "I know it's come under criticism from Republicans, but in terms of how our democracy works, there was a huge upside and no downside to it."
Massachusetts uses paper ballots in elections which Galvin has previously touted as a way to "instill confidence in voters." O'Malley said the tabulators used on election night were "just as effective as people counting ballots" and paper ballots create a trail of paperwork if there are counting errors.
"It may not mean that there are less errors but you can prove whether or not there was an error," she said. "There are people out there that maybe will not believe us no matter how many times we count these ballots."
Election officials have since praised the use of mail-in and early voting and the Legislature is now moving to extend the measure through the end of June, and potentially longer. Senate Ways and Means solicited written testimony over the weekend on a trio of bills (H 72, S 27, S 28) that would extend early in-person voting, mail-in voting, and flexibility in scheduling of municipal elections.
An array of stakeholders wrote to the committee expressing their support and calling for the swift passage of legislation as provisions allowing for no-excuse early voting by mail are set to expire on March 31.
The committee on Thursday advanced legislation combining aspects of two bills (S 27 and S 28) which the Senate approved during a Thursday session. The new Senate Ways and Means bill allows eligible voters to vote early by mail and vote early in-person for any municipal or state primaries or elections held on or before June 30 and grants flexibility in town governance.
Cunningham said the state should "absolutely" move to extend mail-in voting measures.
"The state has even lagged other states in terms of promoting the ease of voting, here's something that we did really well, and we should continue doing it," he said.