The city of Worcester is joining dozens of communities across the Commonwealth in aiming for a much higher voter turnout than usual on Nov. 8, the day of the presidential election.
One reason for the anticipated higher turnout is that in a break with tradition, the election will not simply be held on that one day. Massachusetts has joined 36 other states in adopting an early voting calendar. In Worcester, that means voting will begin at some polling stations on Oct. 24 and continue until the Friday before Election Day.
Early voting has a strategic component. In swing states that have early voting — Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, for example — President Obama is timing his rallies with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, to early voting schedules. Early voting also mutes the effect of last-minute campaign ad blitzes.
Voting is not just sporadic locally, it is a national phenomenon election-by-election. Some state and local elections, like the Sept. 8 primary in a number of communities, attract voter percentages in the single digits. Presidential elections, on the other hand, traditionally bring out the largest crowds.
[Find a list of polling locations and further information from the city below.]
Communities all across the country experience their highest voting percentages upon those quadrennial events. But still, there is not anywhere near 100-percent participation.
To that end, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who posed a tough challenge to Clinton throughout the primary season, has filed a bill to make Election Day in November a national holiday. But unless and until that happens, Massachusetts is joining the states that believe the best way to ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to vote, is to extend the election calendar through early voting.
In a sense, the early voting effort is a loose one. Massachusetts communities are free to participate or not. Even the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, does not know how many communities are participating.
“It’s up to the towns,” said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin. “The way the law was written gives them a lot of leeway.”
As for how many will actually do it: “We won’t know for a while,” McNiff said. “Some of them may still be kicking it around – where, and what days.”
Worcester is using all of the days.
“It makes sense in the cities to get people out and increase the number of people voting,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how Massachusetts voters react to this.”
During the week beginning Oct. 24, Worcester will have one polling place in operation every day – a different location each day, and five locations on the weekend of Oct. 29 and 30.
For a list of polling times, dates, locations and more information: Early voting flyer
What that will do for total voter turnout is purely speculative, according to Assistant City Clerk Niko Vangjeli.
Worcester voting hours will be 8:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29; and 1 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30. Voting on Friday, Nov. 4 will be from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. At that point, voting will not resume until Tuesday, Nov. 8.
Vangjeli said the city projects 25 percent to 30 percent of voters will take advantage of the early voting option, even though it means they would vote at locations other than their usual polling places. If that percentage is realized, he said, Worcester should expect a very high overall turnout when Election Day is done, in part because the early voting will reduce the long lines that some polling places experience during a presidential election.
“That would be a game-changer,” he said.
The secretary of state’s office is offering grant money to cities and towns that take advantage of early voting.
“With this first experience of early voting in Massachusetts it is important that voters have the option of casting their ballot on the weekend. I encourage cities and towns to take advantage of these grants to make it possible for their voters to do so,” Galvin said in a statement.
The grant qualifies Worcester for $1,500 for being open at least four hours on a weekend, with a $250 bonus for each two-hour increment beyond that, and capped at eight hours total. That means Worcester will receive a total of $2,000 from the state to offset the cost of running an election.
Nearby, Shrewsbury, Millbury and Auburn are all participating, but have decided not to open polls on Sunday, Oct. 30. West Boylston will participate, but will not be opening polls on Oct. 29 or 30. The Sun’s quick check of neighboring towns did not find any that were not participating.
Statewide, the voter turnout in 2012 for the presidential election was 73 percent, a small increase from the 2008 turnout. Worcester’s turnout for those two years was 59 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2008.
All elections are not created equal, however. Worcester’s turnout for Thursday’s state primary was just over 5 percent.