By Patrick Burgard, news correspondent

For the first time ever, Boston voters have the option of casting ballots prior to the nationwide Election Day this year through a new initiative.

Voters can obtain an early voting request form and find the most convenient time and place to cast their ballot from the “Vote Early Boston” website, which the city launched on Sept. 19. The site provides links to check registration status and register to vote. Early voting requests can be emailed or mailed to the Elections Department between Oct. 24 and Nov. 4 and must be received by Nov. 4 at noon.

“Whenever we are able to expand access to the ballot, we make our democracy stronger,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said during the announcement on July 21.

Walsh announced the program in July after the city’s Board of Elections unanimously decided to implement ballot casting by mail and the creation of 28 early voting stations across the city, including three per City Council district — which will be in operation for one day each on a rotating basis — and one main station at City Hall which will be open on weekdays throughout the early voting period.

The new program aims to increase voter turnout among the city’s busiest demographics of voters, according to Boston Elections Commissioner Dion Irish.

“Specifically folks who may have a challenge because of their work schedules,” he said.  “This expands the window of opportunity for folks, such as people with disabilities, to vote in person.”

The initiative makes voting more convenient for college students, according to Northeastern Student Government Association President Elliot Horen.

“There’s a major misconception that millennials are apathetic,” he said. “The more opportunities you give us to vote, the better the turnout rates will be.”

The plan was born out of a 2014 law signed by then-Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick mandating that all municipalities provide a 10-day early voting window at one or more locations open during normal business hours. The law goes into effect statewide beginning this election cycle.

The program also comes amid national controversies about voter identification laws, which have spread across the country and led many to fear that the country as a whole is moving in the wrong direction on this issue.

“We’re seeing a nationwide constriction of access to voting,” said Horen. “It’s an incredible thing to see the city of Boston going in the opposite direction and actually expanding access to voting – not just for students, but for everyone.”

Given the particularly controversial ballot questions in Massachusetts this year about marijuana legalization and increased charter school funding, there is a certain timeliness to the program’s launch.

“It’s come at a good time,” said Irish. “The ballot is two pages long this year, which normally could lead to longer lines, but we’re really hoping this will help move things along.”

According to Irish, the Elections Department is predicting that early voters will make up at least one fifth of Boston’s voting population. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported in January 2014 that early votes made up nearly one-third of all ballots cast nationally in 2012. Of those, about two-thirds were sent by mail.

Kelli Berg, a junior combined biology and business administration major said she will consider taking advantage of the early voting program in the upcoming election.  

“It would probably reduce lines, and I like that there are other options besides just voting on one day,” she said.

While voters may use any early voting station they find convenient, City Hall District 7 — which contains Northeastern — will have early polling stations in operation on Oct. 24 between 2 and 8 p.m. at the Harriet Tubman House, Oct.  29 at 2300 Washington St. from 12 to 6 p.m. and at 280 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. from 2 to 8 p.m.

The initiative will promote voting for people who can’t get to the polls on election day, Irish said.

“This expands the window of opportunity for folks to vote in person who may have something that comes up on election day,” said Irish. “Right now, we’re really focused on spreading the message that earlier voting is easier voting.”

Photo courtesy Vox Efx, Creative Commons