This booklet is intended to provide an overview of the Massachusetts General
Laws which address some common situations that may arise on Election Day. Other
information contained in the booklet includes Election Day activities. Activities in the
polling locations include those provisions that apply to candidates and their observers
as well as the rules and regulations pertaining to poll workers. For official information,
please refer to the General Laws and Code of Massachusetts Regulations cited.
The minimum hours polls are open are set by state law, although city council
and town selectmen actually set the hours in conjunction with these statutes and local
ordinances and by-laws. For state elections and city elections, polling locations must
be open at least thirteen hours and for town elections, polling locations must be open
at least four hours. G. L. c. 54, § 64 (2002 ed.). For state primaries, polling locations
must be open at least thirteen hours. G. L. c. 53, § 43 (2002 ed.). For certain city
preliminaries, the polling locations must be open at least six hours. G. L. c. 43, § 44A
Activities in the Polling Location
On Election Day, certain activities are prohibited within the polling location and
within 150 feet of the polling place. General Law chapter 54, section 65 prohibits within
150 feet of a polling location, among other things, the posting, exhibition, circulation, or
distribution of material--including pasters, stickers, posters, cards, handbills, placards,
pictures or circulars--intended to influence the action of the voter. G. L. 54, § 65 (2002
ed.). Consistent with the activities restricted by statute, the implementing regulations
prohibit the solicitation of votes for or against, or any other form of promotion or
opposition of, any person or political party or position on a ballot question, to be voted
on at the current election. 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(22)(d). Accordingly, a person standing
within 150 feet of a polling location, including observers in the polling location, may
not: hold any campaign sign; hand any person literature intended to influence the
voter’s action at the polls; wear any campaign buttons or identifying signage; solicit a
person’s vote for or against a candidate or question on the ballot; or, distribute stickers.
Circulators of nomination papers, initiative and referenda petitions are also restricted
from soliciting signatures within 150 feet of a building entrance door to a polling place.
G. L. c. 54, § 65 (2002 ed.). This is true even where the nomination papers, initiative
petition or referendum have nothing to do with the current election.
General Law chapter 54, section 65, does not limit the voter themselves from
bringing material into the voting booth. They can bring preprinted brochures or
pamphlets, or their own notes. The voter may also bring with them a sticker, handed to
them on their way into the polls by one of the write-in candidates, to affix to the ballot.
However, there are criminal penalties for exhibiting such materials. Accordingly, voters
should not display campaign literature while in the polling location. Additionally, it is
incumbent on the election officers to check the voting booths regularly to see that no
one has left any materials behind. 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(22)(b).
Signs intended to influence the action of voters are subject to both statutory and
regulatory directives. It is well settled that no person may hold a sign that attempts to
influence the voter, or leave such a sign unattended, within 150 feet of a polling
location. G. L. c. 54, § 65 (2002 ed.). However, other issues often arise on Election
Day relative to the holding and posting of unattended signs. There are no state statutes
addressing unattended signs on public property. However, if the sign is on state land,
for example on a rotary or highway, the state police will remove it where they believe it
to be a traffic or safety hazard. On the municipal level, it is quite common for a by-law
to exist, either regulating or forbidding the posting of signs on public property.
Frequently municipalities also have by-laws regulating the posting of signs
on private property. By-laws regulating the posting of political signs have included
regulation of: the size of the sign, the number of signs on a piece of property, and the
time period during which the sign may be exhibited. If the municipality has such a by-
law, it is the law in that municipality, and must be complied with. Please check with city
or town hall for copies of such rules.
Observers are allowed inside the polling place, outside the guardrail, unless
they are disorderly or obstruct the access of voters. 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(22)(a). Such
observers may keep notes including marked voting lists. Id. The poll workers at the
check in table must announce the names of the voters loud enough for the observers to
hear. 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(5). The pertinent regulation states:
To achieve the legal requirement that the election be held in
public view, observers shall be allowed inside the polling place,
outside the guardrail, unless they are disorderly or obstruct the
access of voters. Observers may keep notes including marked
voting lists. If there are so many observers in the polling place
that they obstruct voters, they may be asked to cooperate in
collecting information. The warden may exclude from the
polling place any person who is disorderly or who obstructs
the access of voters.
950 C.M.R. § 54.04(22)(a).
Observers may not request the names and addresses directly from voters or
interfere with the check in process in any way. Rather, the observers should be
listening as the election workers request such information. If the observer intends to
keep notes on a voting list, the observer must request copies of voting lists prior to
Election Day. There is no obligation for local election officials to provide a voting list to
a candidate on Election Day or to respond to any questions from observers. Observers
should only communicate with the warden of the polling location and no other poll
workers or voters. If an observer cannot hear the names being announced by the poll
workers, the observer should notify the warden. Additionally, observers may not use
cellular phones within the polling place.
Observers are positioned behind the guard rail but close enough to be able to
hear the names and addresses of voters as they check in. There is no obligation for the
polling location to provide a table or other equipment for observers. Pursuant to 950
C.M.R. § 51.00, each polling location must be accessible. To meet the accessibility
standards, many polling locations have little spare space. Accordingly, there may not be
enough room to accommodate many observers. If the presiding officer determines that
there are too many observers for the polling location, the presiding officer may ask the
candidates to “pool” the information gathered by a smaller number of observers.
The presiding officer, pursuant to their authority to maintain order and decorum in
the polling place, and to prevent interference with the voters, may determine that the
number of observers, or their behavior, is disruptive. In such situations, the presiding
officer may remove an observer interfering with the election process.
Any person may challenge a voter for any legal cause. G. L. c. 54, §§ 85, 85A
(2002 ed.); 950 C.M.R. 54.04(23). Such reasons are numerous and include that a
person: is not who they say they are; does not live where they say they live; is not
registered in the correct district; is not qualified to vote by absentee ballot; was not
registered to vote by the close of registration; or, has already cast a ballot. It is not
sufficient for the challenger to simply say that a voter is not qualified; the challenger
must state the specific reason for challenging the right of a person to vote, and that
specific reason must be recorded on the ballot. If a person makes a challenge for
an unspecified reason, the election worker should thereafter ask the challenger what
specific reason they wish to have recorded. If, after being so questioned by the election
official, the challenger gives no specific reason, the voter should be permitted to vote,
and should not be considered a challenged voter.
Once the warden, clerk or election officer is informed that a voter’s ballot is
being challenged, the election officer must:
issue the challenged voter’s oath to the challenged voter;
(the challenged voter’s oath is as follow s: “You do solem nly
sw ear (or affirm ) that you are the identical person w hom you
represent yourself to be, that you are registered in this tow n and
that you have not voted at this election..”); and
before the ballot is m arked , require the challenged person to
w rite his nam e and current residence on the ballot;
the w arden then adds the nam e of the challenger to the
and the cause of the challenge. G. L. c. 54, § 85 (2002 ed.).
The ballot is then cast and counted like all others.
P lease note that there are crim inal penalties for challenging a qualified
voter for purposes of intim idation, or of ascertaining how they voted, or for
any other illegal purpose. G. L. c. 56, § 31 (2002 ed.).
Challenging Absentee Ballots
When an absentee ballot is challenged, no challenged voter’s oath may be
issued, as the voter is not present. Therefore, the warden bears the responsibility of
recording the name and address of the voter on the ballot. G. L. c. 54, § 96 (2002 ed.).
Should a candidate believe that there are violations of the statutes governing the
application for or casting of absentee ballots, his observers must challenge those ballots
as the warden announces the names of the absentee voters. Taking this proactive
approach allows the ballot, and therefore, the vote contained thereon, to be identified
with a specific person, and preserves the issue for a potential recount. See G. L. c.
54, § 135 (2002 ed.). If a candidate neglects to challenge such voters, the votes cast
cannot be deducted from the appropriate candidate at a recount as there will be no
way to link a specific ballot to a specific voter. At that point, if the candidate believes
such votes will make a difference in the outcome of the election, the candidate will
be forced to pursue a remedy in court. G. L. c. 56, § 59 (2002 ed.). To avoid such a
result, the candidate should review the list of absentee voters required to be available
prior to the election, and instruct his observers accordingly. See G. L. c.54, § 91 (2002
ed.) (lists shall be prepared by the clerk, arranged by voting precincts, of the names and
addresses of all voters on whose applications for absent voting ballots the certificate has
been executed, and shall post copies of such lists for public inspection).
Voting Later in Person by an Absentee Voter
A person who has completed an absentee ballot who later wishes to vote in
person on Election Day may do so if her ballot has not yet been processed. The voter,
at check in, may request from the presiding officer that they be permitted to vote at the
polls. G. L. c. 54, § 100 (2002 ed.). If the warden determines that the voter’s absentee
ballot has not yet been processed and that the individual is otherwise qualified to vote--
for example, the voter is asked to show identification which proves their identity and
address—the warden may issue the voter a certificate allowing the person to cast a
ballot at the polls. Id. The capital letter “C” should then be placed next to the voter’s
name, and the certificate should be attached to the voter list and be maintained as part
thereof. Id. When the warden later comes across that individual’s absentee ballot, the
warden must mark across the face of the envelope, “Rejected as Voted in Person,” and
the envelope must be preserved and destroyed in the manner provided by law for the
retention, preservation and destruction of official ballots. Id.
I nactive Voters
General Laws chapter 54, section 67 requires that voting lists be delivered to the
officers responsible for of the check-in, and to the officers responsible for the check out.
The municipality must maintain separate lists of active and inactive voters. G. L. c. 51,
§ 55 (2002 ed.). However, a single list may be maintained where the inactive voters
are designated as such on the list. Id. General Laws chapter 51, section 59 and the
applicable regulations require that when inactive voters arrive to check in, they must be
presented with an Affirm ation of Current and Continuous Residency . G. L. c. 51,
§ 59 (2002 ed.); 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(6).
The check in process for inactive voters involves a number of steps. The
pertinent regulation states in pertinent part:
If the name, address or party enrollment of a person claiming
the right to vote appear on the voting list as an inactive voter,
the presiding officer shall allow such inactive voter to vote
upon written affirmation by the inactive voter of his current
and continuous residence in the municipality. . ., signed under
the penalty of perjury.
950 C.M.R. § 54.04(6)(a).
An inactive voter must therefore be provided with the form known as an
Affirm ation of Current and Continuous Residency , in order to provide the voter
with the opportunity to affirm in writing, signed under the penalty of perjury, that
they do currently live, and have continuously lived within the municipality. Id. I f
the voter’s nam e is on the inactive voters list, the poll w orker m ust also
request identification containing the voter’s nam e and current address. 950
C.M.R. § 54.04(6)(b). If the voter has moved within the municipality, the voter should
vote where he is listed on the voter list. Id. Should an inactive voter fail to show
identification with his current address, the election official m ust challenge the
voter’s ballot in accordance with the procedures set forth in the “Challenge” section.
Because of a new federal law, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 passed by
Congress, any voter who registered to vote by mail on or after January 1, 2003, will be
required to show identification when he/she votes for the first time since registering by
mail in 2003. 42 U.S.C. § 15483(b)(4)(A); G. L. c. 54, § 76B. Acceptable identification
must include the voter’s name and the address at which he/she is registered to vote, for
example: a current and valid photo identification, current utility bill, bank statement,
paycheck, government check, or other government document showing your name and
address. If the voter does not provide such identification, the Help America Vote Act of
2002 requires that the voter may only cast a provisional ballot which will be counted
later, but only after the voter’s eligibility to vote has been determined.
Additionally, an election officer, authorized to do so by the local election officials,
may request any voter to present written identification. 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(6B). The
requests must not discriminate in any way and may therefore be: entirely random,
consistent, or based on reasonable suspicion. Id. Please note that there is no provision
which permits observers to request identification from any voter or even to
communicate with voters.
A voter who informs the warden that from blindness or other physical disability
or inability to read or to read in the English language that they are unable to prepare
their ballot or register their vote is entitled to receive assistance to do so. G. L. c. 54,
§ 79 (2002 ed.). The voter may designate a person of their choice to assist them. Id.
In the alternative, the voter can request that two election officers, one from each major
party, accompany them into the voting booth to assist them in completing their ballot.
See, e.g., 950 C.M.R. § 54.04(9)(c) (where a voter requests instruction or assistance
after entering the voting machine booth two election officers of different political parties
may instruct or assist the voter in the voting booth).
If the name of a person claiming the right to vote is not on the voting list or is
listed incorrectly, the person may seek to vote either by appearing before the municipal
election official at city or town hall or may vote by provisional ballot. G. L. c. 54, § 76C.
Additionally, a voter required to show identification pursuant to the Help America Vote
Act of 2002 as described above, but who does not, must vote on a provisional ballot.
To cast a provisional ballot, a person must execute a provisional ballot
affirmation before a precinct officer at the polling place declaring that he/she is a
registered voter in the city or town and resides within the geographical boundaries of
said precinct. All provisional voters must show suitable identification showing their
name and current address.
After voting on a provisional ballot, the person places it in a specially marked
envelope, seals that envelope and returns it to the precinct election official. The ballot
will then be set aside until a determination of the person’s eligibility can be made.
After the election, the person's eligibility will be determined using the
information provided in the affidavit. The municipal election official will review available
records, at least those for the last three (3) years, to determine eligibility.
If the person’s eligibility is confirmed, the ballot will be removed from the sealed
envelope and grouped with similar ballots and counted in a manner that provides the
greatest secrecy. If the person’s eligibility cannot be confirmed, the ballot will remain
sealed in the envelope until such time as it is required to be kept and then will be
destroyed without being viewed.
A person may contact the Elections Division, Office of the Secretary of the
Commonwealth at 1-800-462-8683 or 617-727-2828, or their municipal election official
to find out if their ballot was counted. The information is available seven (7) days after
a primary and twenty (20) days after an election. When calling, the person must
provide their name, address, date of birth and provisional ballot number to receive the
A voter may request a new ballot if they make a mistake in marking their ballot.
G. L. c. 54, § 81 (2002 ed.). If a voter spoils a ballot, the voter may obtain two others,
one at a time, upon returning each spoiled one. A ballot that is spoiled by a voter is
marked “Spoiled” and then sealed in an envelope without being examined.
Closing of Polls
Any voters in line at the time set for the closing of the polls must be allowed to
vote. G. L. c. 54, § 70 (2002 ed.). The polling location must remain open after the
closing of the polls so that the public may observe the counting of votes from outside
the guardrail. The voting lists and all ballots removed form the ballot box shall be kept
in open view of the voters present until enclosed and sealed up, and all proceedings in
the canvass and counting of votes shall be public and in open view of the voters. G. L.
c. 54, § 105A (2002 ed.). However, only election officers may take part in the actual
process of counting and sealing the voting materials. Id. During this process, the
observers must stand outside the guard rail. G. L. c. 54, § 70 (2002 ed.).
The process of counting the ballots differs depending on the type of voting
equipment used. However, the basic requirements are the same. The clerk must
record the final register number on the ballot box. G. L. c. 54, §§ 105, 105A (2002 ed.).
A count must be made of the voters on both the check in and check out lists, and the
voting lists must thereafter be sealed in an envelope. Id.; see also G. L. c. 54, § 107
(2002 ed.) (procedure for sealing voting lists and ballots; applicable to all of the
materials required to be sealed as indicated below).
The election officers shall canvass and count the ballots if paper ballots are used,
and otherwise, the election officers shall read the vote totals from the counting device
after the polls close, either by a printer mechanism or otherwise. G. L. c. 54, §§ 105,
105A (2002 ed.). The ballots not able to be read by the machines must be hand
counted. Id. Election officers may not hold a pen or any other kind of marking device
during the counting of the ballots, except for the person actually recorded the votes. G.
L. c. 54, § 80 (2002 ed.). Furthermore, such election officials may only use red pencils
or red ink to record or tabulate votes. Id. For the purpose of ascertaining the results of
a state election, city election, or a town election where official ballots are used, or of
any question submitted to the voters, the election officials must use the blank forms and
apparatus provided by the Secretary of the Commonwealth. G. L. c. 54, § 104 (2002
The unused and spoiled ballots must also be counted, placed in a container
under seal, and the clerk must record the numbers. G. L. c. 54, §§ 105, 105A (2002
ed.). The counted ballots are placed into a designated container, which is then sealed a
certificate is affixed thereto stating that only ballots cast and no other ballots are
contained therein. Id. The total tally sheets are placed in an envelope, sealed, and the
warden and clerk also sign the outside of the envelope. Id. In communities using a
central tabulation facility, the ballots will then be transported thereto, and then
transmitted to the city or town clerk who must retain them in a secure location. G. L. c.
54, § 105A (2002 ed.). In all other communities, the sealed envelopes and containers
will be returned directly to the city or town clerk who must retain them in a secure
location. G. L. c. 54, §§ 105, 105A (2002 ed.).
W hat to Do if a Problem Arises on Election Day
If a person encounters a problem at a polling location on Election Day, the
person should approach the warden or the presiding officer with the issue. As the
warden or presiding officer is in charge of the polling location, they should be able to
resolve any issues. However, if the problem persists, a person should contact the city
or town clerk who is the chief election officer of the municipality. If the problem is still
not resolved, a person may contact the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Elections
Division at 617-727-2828 or 1-800-462-8683.