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House approves vote-by-mail for fall elections

Bill would allow counting of ballots arriving after election


THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE on Thursday passed a bill that would allow any resident to vote by mail in the September and November elections.

The bill is a compromise that rejects some of the more far-reaching changes proposed by voting rights’ advocates – like mailing ballots to every voter or allowing Election Day voter registration – but vastly expands vote-by-mail in Massachusetts.

It also for the first time would allow some ballots that arrive after Election Day to be counted in the general election. An amendment adopted on the House floor would count any ballot postmarked by Election Day that arrives at town or city offices by 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, three days after the election.

“The options in this bill ensure that every voice will be heard in every vote that is counted,” said Rep. John Lawn, a Watertown Democrat who chairs the Election Laws Committee.

The bill passed by a vote of 155-1, with Rep. Colleen Garry, a Dracut Democrat, the sole no vote. It now goes to the Senate.

The changes come as the state continues to grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak, and no one knows what the trajectory of the virus will be this fall. Public health experts have speculated that there will be a second wave of infections, and it is possible that gathering in large numbers at a polling place will be unsafe for voters and poll workers. Regardless of the number of infections, many voters may still not feel safe voting in person.

The House bill would allow early voting by mail for anyone who applies for a ballot in both the primary and general elections. The secretary of state would send every registered voter an application for a mail-in ballot, which voters could return to their city or town clerk. Voters could then submit ballots by mail, in person, or through a municipal drop box any time until the polls close on Election Day. Postage would be prepaid.

Voters would have until seven days before an election to apply for a mail-in ballot. Anyone hospitalized after that could still get a ballot before Election Day.

The bill would establish periods for early voting before the primary election and for the general election. Municipalities would be required to have weekend voting hours, with the number of hours dependent on the population of eligible voters. General election early voting has been available since 2016, but this would be the first time Massachusetts offers early voting in a primary.

There would still be in-person voting on Election Day. Municipal governments would have increased authority to move the location of polling places up to 15 days before the election for the sake of convenience or public health. Secretary of State William Galvin would have to craft regulations establishing public health safeguards related to distancing of voters and election officials, and the use of personal protective equipment, sanitizers, and marking pens.

City and town clerks previously told CommonWealth that they worry they will not be able to handle a deluge of ballots, since processing requests for absentee ballots is a labor-intensive process.

The House took one step toward addressing the administrative burden by adopting an amendment championed by the state Town Clerks Association that would let clerks feed mail-in ballots into the tabulating machine as they come in. Current law requires all early ballots to be fed into machines on Election Day, which creates a bottleneck. The results still would not be calculated until after polls close.

“When you’re talking about tens of thousands…of ballots being received by a clerk, doing that all in one day is just an impossible task,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

Voting rights’ advocates had also been pushing for the amendment that would count ballots that arrived after Election Day. The amendment passed 136-20.

In recent special elections in Massachusetts and in presidential primaries in other states, slow mail delivery resulted in some mail-in ballots not being counted since they arrived after Election Day. Wilmot said 17 other states accept ballots that arrive late.

While this would delay the reporting of final results, Wilmot said it is more important to count each vote. “This…allows many more people to cast a ballot that will count and cast it safely from their own home,” Wilmot said.

Rep. Maria Robinson, a Framingham Democrat, said not counting late ballots could open the state up to lawsuits. It would also risk disenfranchising voters due to problems at the US Postal Service, which is likely to face a high volume of mail along with staff shortages stemming from COVID-19.

There were 26 amendments introduced to the bill and most were withdrawn or voted on after private discussions with little public debate.

An amendment to allow same-day voter registration – long a subject of controversy on Beacon Hill – was rejected. The House did pass an amendment to require voters to register by 10 days before an election instead of the current 20 days. Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, said that will make it easier to register in a year when traditional avenues of registering people to vote – Registry of Motor Vehicle transactions, voter registration drives, and summer events – are curtailed.

Voter advocacy groups – and influential politicians like Democratic US Rep. Joe Kennedy – previously called for the state to mail all voters a ballot. Galvin opposed this, citing logistical difficulties.

Alex Psilakis, policy manager at MassVOTE, said a system of mailing out ballots to everyone remains “something we really want to see in the long-term.” But he worried that holding up the bill to keep pushing for the policy risked getting nothing passed. “Right now, we need to provide local election officials and voters the tools to cast their ballots this fall,” Psilakis said. “If we wait any longer, we’re afraid that’s not going to happen.”

Rep. Paul Mark, a Peru Democrat, said given the short time-frame for implementing emergency changes, the most practical solution was to use absentee balloting, which has worked reliably for many years, as a foundation for expanding remote voting. He said the proposal is “not unworkable” for small towns, though it will require state and federal funding.

Galvin said he had mostly minor, technical concerns with the House bill. He is worried about the cost, which he estimates at an additional $2 million if lawmakers require him to include prepaid postage on ballot applications, and twice that if ballots are prepaid. But, he said, “If the Legislature insists we do it, we’ll do it.”

This story originally appeared on Commonwealth Magazine.org. Check it out here.

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