Massachusetts of course has long had absentee ballots for people who can provide excuses for not being around on Election Day1, but in 2014 the state passed a law allowing anybody to request a mail-in ballot, or to vote early in person for a period of a couple of weeks before the election. This year's general election is the first one for which the law is in effect. Every city or town has to have at least one early-voting location, though the details vary from place to place. The main location here is in the basement of City Hall, at the opposite corner from the RMV office. They're going to have a few other locations open just on Saturday, at a couple of fire stations and the Department of Public Works. The operation seems modest compared to what already exists in some other places, but it's a start.
I've heard reports of brisk business in some other towns, but when I went there (about an hour after early voting began), interest seemed fairly low. The poll workers were still getting the hang of the system, but it didn't matter much, because there were only a few people there, most of them elderly. The late and weekend hours might get a more diverse crowd.
In any event, it was interesting. Regular Election Day voting here is a pretty streamlined affair in which you check in at a table with paper voter lists, get your optical-scan ballot, retire to a cardboard cubby to fill it in, then check out at a different table with another set of voter lists, and you stick your ballot in the box. Early voting is a little different, since there are people coming in from all over the city, and the ballots have to be sent back to the voters' individual precincts in sealed envelopes. It's basically an in-person version of voting by mail.
The poll workers checked me in on a tablet computer, with the option of scanning driver's license dot codes to get my name and address faster--though they were very careful to emphasize that this was optional, and ID was not required. The tablet was connected to a little printer that spat out a numbered, receipt-like slip, which they kept at the table. Then they gave me a yellow envelope, a ballot, a sheet of instructions, and a marker pen. There was a long line of cubbies for voting off to the side, most of them unoccupied.
The ballot was a regular optical-scan ballot, only pre-creased for folding so it would go into the envelope. Aside from filling out the ballot itself, I had to write my name and address and sign an affidavit on the outside of the envelope, then seal the ballot inside. (So from the voter's perspective, there isn't 100% assurance that these early ballots are secret--but that's the case with voting by mail as well.) I then brought the envelope back to the original table, where they stapled the printed slip to the front and stuck it in a box. The envelope is apparently going to go back to my home precinct, where it will be opened sometime after the polls close on November 8 and the ballot scanned along with all the Election Day ballots. The voter lists that the poll workers have on Election Day will also note that I've already voted, so I can't do it again.
For most people here, it was probably not more convenient than voting on Election Day, aside from the greater time flexibility. There is the advantage that if something goes wrong, you can always come back later; there's less chance of a disaster that keeps you from actually casting a ballot. But my precinct usually has very light crowds and little trouble anyway.
Still, there is something nice about getting it done when most of the country still has a couple of weeks to go.
1 The old absentee ballots apparently still exist as a separate system from the new mail-in ballots, which is a little odd. Presumably there's room to streamline that some more.