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Timetable Putting Rush On Vote-By-Mail Reforms In Massachusetts

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.
State House News Service
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin in a file photo.

Massachusetts would offer a mail-in ballot to any voter who requests one and expand in-person early voting opportunities under a plan the state's chief elections official unveiled Wednesday.

Secretary of State William Galvin's proposal (PDF) for handling elections in the coronavirus era does not go as far as the universal vote-by-mail some lawmakers and election advocates have requested, but it would reshape voting this fall in an attempt to limit COVID-19 transmission risks for both constituents and poll workers.

His proposed legislation would allow any Massachusetts voter to request, electronically or in writing, a mail-in ballot without providing the justification typically required. Election officials would gain permission to send out ballots as soon as they are ready.

Galvin's plan would also expand early voting at polling locations to an 18-day period ahead of the general election, including two weekends, and a seven-day stretch ahead of the Sept. 1 primary. Massachusetts has never before offered early voting before the statewide primary.

"I want to make sure that any voter who wants to cast their ballot by mail is able to do so this fall, but it is also essential that we preserve in person voting as an option for those who need it," Galvin said in a press release. "The best way to do that is to spread it out over as many days as possible, to avoid crowding in the polling places."

State law currently only requires 12 days of early voting opportunities, with no guaranteed weekends, ahead of the general election. Voters are also currently unable to vote by mail outside of a two-week early voting period before the general election.

The state primary does not have a dedicated early-voting period. In October, the Senate approved a fiscal year 2019 closeout budget that authorized five days of early voting ahead of the primary, but the provision was dropped from the final bill after private negotiations with the House.

In addition to allowing no-excuse mailed ballots, Galvin's proposal would allow voters to return ballots to an official drop box or appoint a family member to deliver it by hand. Anyone hospitalized or quarantined within one week of an election could designate an individual to hand-deliver them a ballot.

Galvin said in his press release that his office is working with the United States Postal Service "to ensure voters do not need to pay for postage to return their mail-in ballots" under his plan.

The secretary urged lawmakers to act on the issue quickly, noting that his office will begin printing primary ballots immediately after the June 2 deadline -- extended by one week in a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision -- for candidates to file nomination papers.

"We need to have our plan in place very soon, so that my office can order a sufficient number of mail-in ballot materials for voters, and so that voters can start getting those ballots," Galvin said. "The more time our local election officials have to prepare, the more smoothly this election will run for everyone."

Galvin's office said it is still analyzing the cost implications of his proposal but that the final estimate will depend on how much of the plan the Legislature embraces.

Key stakeholders so far have not reached consensus on how to adjust Massachusetts elections in a way that balances participation and public health. Several bills are pending in the Legislature that would create a universal vote-by-mail program, some of which would expand reforms beyond 2020.

One day before Galvin unveiled his formal proposal, Reps. John Lawn -- who co-chairs the Election Laws Committee -- and Michael Moran filed a bill (HD 5075) that would require Galvin to mail ballots to every Massachusetts voter before the Nov. 3 election, regardless of application status.

Other provisions of their bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Eric Lesser and Adam Hinds, are similar to Galvin's, such as expanded early voting before both the primary and the general election. The legislation also only applies to this September and November's races.

"Covid-19 presents an unprecedented challenge to our election administration," Lawn said in a Wednesday press release. "I look forward to working together with advocates and my colleagues to ensure that all Massachusetts voters have the ability to express their freedom to vote this election cycle."

A range of advocacy groups including Common Cause Massachusetts, the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts backed the Lawn and Moran bill.

"This bill provides us the greatest opportunity to brace our fall elections for COVID19 in a practical, yet powerful manner," said MassVOTE Executive Director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford in a joint press release with the legislative sponsors and other groups. "We have no doubt that policies like vote-by-mail will thrive this fall, and will ultimately encourage lawmakers to consider implementing these reforms in the long-term."

In a Wednesday report, researchers at Tufts University's Center for State Policy Analysis wrote that the fall election season in Massachusetts will look "radically different" if the highly infectious COVID-19 remains a threat.

They did not endorse a particular strategy, but found that demand for absentee and mail-in voting "will likely be enormous, requiring dramatic upgrades to state and municipal capacity." In 2016, only 4 percent of registered voters received ballots by mail, authors wrote.

Voting by mail will likely carry a significant cost as well, with the report citing statewide estimates for the November election alone ranging from $12 million to $30 million.

However, authors noted that federal funds could help shoulder that burden, with $8 million available for COVID-related election costs through the CARES Act and nearly $40 million in unused money still available from a 2002 election-support law.

Like Galvin and advocates, the nonpartisan researchers underlined the time-sensitive nature of reforming the elections.

"We have four months until the September primary," said cSPA Executive Director Evan Horowitz in a press release alongside the report. "These kinds of system-wide changes take time -- whether it's recruiting poll workers from less vulnerable populations or reorganizing operations to accommodate the projected spike in absentee voting."

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