BOSTON (State House News Service) – Mail-in voting and expanded early voting hours proved popular during the COVID-19 pandemic when lawmakers allowed it to be deployed as a temporary measure to help limit possible transmission of the virus at polling places.

[Chris Lisinski/SHNS]

This cycle marked the first time those options were available on a permanent, non-emergency basis, and while voting by mail continued to draw widespread interest, the most common choice for voters was the more traditional step of heading to a polling place on Election Day.

Massachusetts voters cast more than 1.38 million ballots in person on Nov. 8, representing 55.1 percent of all votes in the general election. About 937,000 ballots, or 37.4 percent, were submitted by mail, and 188,175, or 7.5 percent were cast during in-person early voting hours.

[Data: Turnout by Municipality]

Total turnout beat Secretary of State William Galvin’s election eve prediction by about 300,000 votes or 6 percentage points. His office pointed to “a larger than expected turnout on Election Day” — not to any of the reforms that advocates have long tied to better voter engagement — as the reason for the surprise.

“I’m delighted to have been wrong,” Galvin said in a statement alongside the release of the official turnout data.

Use of mail-in ballots fluctuated across the state, with pockets of greater interest in wealthy suburbs to the north and west of Boston, on Cape Cod, and in communities around Amherst.

The highest rate of mail-in voting was in Gosnold, a tiny municipality covering the Elizabeth Islands to the northwest of Martha’s Vineyard. Forty-two of the 55 votes counted in the town came via mail, representing more than three-quarters.

Other than the outlier of Gosnold, no city or town received more than 57 percent of its votes via mail. Rounding out the top 10 mail-in voting rates were Acton (56.95 percent), Bourne (55.97 percent), Orleans (51.4 percent), Amherst (50.5 percent), Lexington (49.9 percent), Wellesley (49.8 percent), Brewster (49.7 percent), Ashland (49.7 percent) and Eastham (49 percent).

Few Strong Trends By Demographic

As policymakers unpack the first full election cycle with permanent mail-in and expanded early voting in place, they might not find too many obvious conclusions about the kinds of voters more or less likely to take advantage of those options.

Comparing each community’s rate of ballots cast via mail to major demographic factors such as race, age and household income, the trends appear fairly weak if they exist at all.

There seems to be nearly no direct correlation between mail-in voting rates and a community’s share of residents ages 65 and older. The trendline linking those two variables on a chart is, for all intents and purposes, a flat horizontal line, indicating no relationship in one direction or another.

Cities and towns with a higher share of people of color were not much more likely or much less likely to vote by mail at higher rates than whiter communities in this election. Among the 20 communities with the highest share of minorities, seven had mail-in voting rates greater than the statewide average, and 13 had rates below the statewide average.

[Chris Lisinski/SHNS]

When it comes to income and mail-in voting, the faint outline of a trend appears, with the use of mailed ballots tending to be a bit higher in higher-earning cities and towns. But it’s far from a definitive pattern.

Some of the cities and towns with the highest rate of mail-in voting are indeed wealthy, like Concord, where 48.5 percent of ballots were cast by mail and the median household income in 2020 was $160,392. Others like Amherst (50.5 percent voted by mail, median household income $56,906) and Eastham (49 percent voted by mail, median household income $67,127) are not.

Smaller Communities Turned Out at Higher Rates

More than four times as many votes were cast in Boston in the latest elections as in any other community, no surprise given the city’s significant population and registered voter advantage over any other municipality.

But in terms of turnout rate, the Hub lagged below average.

A bit more than 40 percent of the 447,852 registered voters in Boston cast ballots in the general election, about 11 percentage points below the statewide turnout rate of 51.4 percent. That trend was not limited to Boston — among the 10 municipalities with the most registered voters, only Cambridge (52.3 percent) and Newton (61.2 percent) had higher shares of voters cast ballots than Massachusetts as a whole.

On the flip side, smaller cities and towns tended to see more robust voter participation.

The highest voter turnout rate occurred in the state’s third-smallest town: about 75 percent of voters in Mount Washington, a Berkshire County community tucked against both the New York and Connecticut borders, cast ballots.

Following Mount Washington in the top 10 turnout rates were Alford (73.3 percent), Conway (73.25 percent), Westhampton (72.8 percent) Eastham (72.4 percent), Carlisle (71.8 percent), Whately (71.1 percent), Orleans (71 percent), Pelham (70.96 percent) and Petersham (70.3 percent).

Out of the 50 municipalities with the highest turnout rates, only six — Arlington, Natick, Belmont, Concord, Sudbury, and Dennis — had more than 10,000 voters on their rolls for the midterm contests.

Several Gateway Cities featured among the 10 lowest-turnout communities: Lawrence (22.8 percent), Springfield (24.9 percent), Lowell (29.7 percent), Chelsea (31.7 percent), Fall River (33 percent), New Bedford (33 percent), Brockton (33.1 percent), Southbridge (34.3 percent), Holyoke (34.4 percent) and Lynn (35 percent).