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Elections amid the coronavirus pandemic: MassVOTE gives guidance on Mass. vote-by-mail

By Jackson Cote | jcote@masslive.com


Due to the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on ballot-casting last month, one nonprofit is providing guidance on how to vote by mail ahead of this fall’s general election. MassVOTE published a policy brief this week analyzing four issues surrounding voting by mail - including accessibility, cost, infrastructure and security - and highlighted best practices states being used by states across the country.


The nonprofit group has sent the eight-page brief to the commonwealth’s 200 state legislators and more than 5,000 of their supporters, according to a statement from the organization.


“Our main goal with this policy brief is to not only educate folks, but to dispel many myths around vote-by-mail,” Alex Psilakis, MassVOTE policy and communications manager, said in the statement. “Everyone, from legislators to voters, has heard a lot about vote-by-mail over the past few weeks. Yet what they have actually heard - and what vote-by-mail can actually look like - varies dramatically."


Beacon Hill lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this month that would allow early voting by mail before the September state primary and the November general election if the current state of emergency is still in effect. Ballots would need to be received by one’s town clerk before polls close on Election Day.


U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, who is running against incumbent U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, has also been advocating to allow residents to vote by mail in the wake of the outbreak and asked the state Legislature to pass a vote-by-mail bill for Election Day.


In a video conference Tuesday with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, he and the prosecutor expressed the need for the alternative ballot-casting option during the COVID-19 public health crisis.


“No one should have to chose between their health and the right to vote,” he tweeted. “We need vote by mail.”


MassVOTE’s announcement comes several weeks after the Wisconsin presidential primary, where voting mishaps were aplenty due to the ongoing pandemic.


Thousands of absentee ballots went uncounted. Hundreds of polling locations closed. Other spots that remained open “severely” lacked election officials and personal protective equipment, according to the group’s brief, titled "Bracing Our Elections for COVID-19: Understanding Vote-By-Mail and How It Can Thrive In Massachusetts.”


“In the end, many voters faced an unacceptable choice - wait in line for hours and put their health and the health of those around them at risk, or stay at home and lose the opportunity to make their voice heard,” the brief said.


After the state’s primary was held, 40 people who either went out to vote or were working at polling locations tested positive for the viral respiratory infection, The Hill reported. It is unclear, though, if they contracted the virus during the primary as several patients reported other possible exposures.

MassVOTE is working to ensure the September primary and November general election can be safely held in-person, Psilakis said, adding that transmission of the coronavirus during Wisconsin’s election is concerning.


“It’s only proof that we need to reform our elections," Psilakis told MassLive. “We don’t want this to be going on in September or November, but we want to be ready. If they’re right about a second wave in the winter, we want to be ready.”


To avoid a repeat of Wisconsin, MassVOTE said, Massachusetts must implement a vote-by-mail system. Five states - Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington - already have the option available, though the process differs state to state, particularly during primary elections.


In Washington, unenrolled voters receive one ballot in which they can vote for a single party during a primary, while in Colorado, residents get ballots from both the Democratic and Republican parties but can send only one back, MassVOTE noted.


The organization urged Massachusetts to adopt Utah’s model, where voters affiliated with either party automatically receive by-mail primary ballots, and unenrolled voters get a letter giving them the option to request either party’s ballot, according to MassVOTE.


The group also recommended that the commonwealth provide pre-paid envelopes so voters can return their ballots. The state should extend the voter return deadline for the general election as well, MassVOTE said.


To implement voting by mail, Massachusetts needs a slew of technologies and security measures, according to the group’s brief. These include high-speed sorting equipment and scanners, signature verification systems and 24/7 video surveillance of ballot processing centers.


MassVOTE noted the commonwealth can balance the public health concerns that have ramped up due to the pandemic with worries about “electoral integrity.”


“Preserving public health is of the utmost importance right now. But this goes hand-in-hand with ensuring our fall elections take place in a safe, secure manner, and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard at the ballot box," Psilakis said. “Massachusetts can and must implement vote-by-mail in time for the fall elections.”


This story was originally published on Mass Live. View the original article here


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