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Mailing it in: Absentee or early?

In a little more than two weeks, Harvard and the five other towns in the 37th Middlesex District will vote to fill the seat left vacant by former state Rep. Jen Benson, who left office in January. Democrat Danillo Sena and Republican Catherine Clark are competing for the position. And while polls at the Bromfield School cafeteria will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the June 2 election, town officials are encouraging voters to mail in their votes. For instance, Assistant Town Administrator Marie Sobalvarro issued a lighthearted plea on the social media site Nextdoor Harvard, using references to the old K-tel commercials (“But wait. There’s more!”) and the Flowbee, a vacuum-like, electric haircutting device. Humor gave way to detailed directions on the town’s website, to which Sobalvarro directed voters. And it is there that instructions for using either an absentee ballot, or an early voting ballot—as they are officially known—can be found.

Absentee vs early ballot: What’s the difference?

Both the absentee and the early ballots can be mailed in and probably should be, given the health crisis. But both can also be hand-delivered (through the mail slot while Town Hall is closed, or anytime you want to avoid entering the building), emailed as an attachment, or faxed to the town clerk’s office. The emphasis on mailing the ballots has led some to confuse these ballots with true all-mail voting systems, employed by only a few states, and not by Massachusetts.

Whatever the delivery mode, all ballots must be at Town Hall by the end of polling hours for any given election. An election day postmark is irrelevant if a ballot isn’t at Town Hall on time, though some proposed legislation seeks to amend that.

Perhaps the most important thing to know is that the early voting ballot is available only for the June 2 and June 23 elections, while the absentee ballot is available for all 2020 elections, including the June election, or for a subset of the 2020 contests.

Another difference is that the absentee ballot can be requested by a person other than the voter, but the early ballot must be requested by the voter.

An absentee ballot by any other name…

The early voting ballot is “essentially ‘no excuses’ absentee voting,” Kenney said in an email to the Press. It emerged as part of a law enacted in March to address the civic challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. She explained that the law allows voters to apply for early voting ballots without claiming the normally required reasons—travel, religious beliefs, or disability—for the June elections. Soon after that law was enacted, however, the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin expanded its view of disability as a reason to get an absentee ballot to include, “Staying in your home or avoiding your polling place as a precautionary measure in response to COVID-19.” And thus did the early ballot join the absentee ballot as a choice for June’s local elections. Meanwhile, at least one bill pending in the Legislature aims to further expand mail-in voting for the September state primary and the November presidential election.

For more information, go to and

In a Nutshell: 2020 elections

  • June 2 Special Election for the 37th Middlesex District
    Candidates for state representative are Catherine Clark and Dan Sena. Request ballots with either “Absentee” or “Early” ballot applications. In-person voting, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Bromfield. No in-person early voting at Town Hall.
  • June 23 Town Election
    The ballot will include questions voted on at Spring Town Meeting (June 20), such as the override question and debt exclusions. It will also include candidates (all names not available at press time) for Select Board, School Committee, Warner Free Lecture trustees, and Harvard Public Library trustees. Request ballots with either “Absentee” or “Early” ballot applications. In-person voting, 3 to 8 p.m. at Bromfield. No in-person early voting at Town Hall.
  • Sept. 1 State Primary Election
    Request a ballot with an “Absentee” ballot application. In-person voting times to be determined.
  • Nov. 3 Presidential Election
    Request a ballot with an “Absentee” ballot application. In-person voting times to be determined.
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