In response to Coronavirus, MA Sec. of State releases early voting, vote-by-mail package
Secretary of State William Galvin on Wednesday released a package that expands early voting and outlines contingencies for people who are quarantined during the coronavirus pandemic and cannot vote in person.
In a memo sent to the Election Law Committee, Galvin detailed a plan to offer a vote-by-mail option for the September primary and expand in-person voting for both the primary and general elections.
“We believe that with these expanded voting options, the voters of Massachusetts will be able to fully participate in the democratic process in a safe and convenient manner,” Galvin wrote in the memo, which was also sent to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka.
Galvin’s plan would allow in-person voting 18 days ahead of the November election, up from the 12 days currently allowed under state law. It would also allow early voting up to seven days ahead of the state primary in September. State law currently does not allow early voting ahead of the primary.
Under that plan, the polls will be open during at least two weekends before the general election and one weekend before the primary election. Each municipality will have to be open for a minimum number of hours for early voting, depending on how many registered voters the community has.
“It is our hope that requiring weekend hours, including the addition of a second weekend, to the early voting period would limit crowding at early voting locations and at polling places on Election Day,” Galvin wrote in the memo.
His plan would also allow voters to request a mail-in ballot for the September primary. Voters would be able to request a mail-in ballot online or submit a paper application distributed by the secretary’s office, according to the memo.
Voters who are hospitalized or quarantined would be allowed to have a family member submit an early ballot on their behalf.
Galvin told lawmakers he anticipates his office will need more supplies to print more ballots and envelopes to meet the increased demand of mail-in ballots.
Lawmakers across the country are calling for vote-by-mail options in light of the coronavirus pandemic, including Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, who is running for Sen. Ed Markey’s seat.
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 71,000 people nationwide, including more than 4,000 people in Massachusetts.
Gov. Charlie Baker extended his executive order banning large gatherings and closing non-essential businesses until at least May 18. He also announced a reopening advisory board that would issue a report outlining a “phased” reopening for non-essential businesses, also on May 18.
Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who is overseeing the advisory board, suggested a safe, effective reopening of businesses could take months as the state tries to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, more than 70,000 people in Massachusetts have tested positive.
Reps. John Lawn and Michael Moran filed a bill on Tuesday that would require municipal clerks to mail ballots to voters with corresponding paperwork. Those who want to vote in person or have their ballot mailed to a different address would need to apply for that change in writing to the municipal clerk.
The bill calls for early voting 11 days before the primary election and 16 days before the general election. It also requires that the polling places and early voting sites have sanitizers, appropriate clothing and social distancing protocols in place.
Sen. Becca Rausch and Rep. Adrian Madaro filed legislation that would send mail-in ballots to voters, rather than requiring them to request the ballots. The bill required that a mail-in ballot be postmarked by Election Day and get to a city or town clerk within five days of the election. If the bill passed, the terms would sunset at the end of the year.
If the state successfully mailed ballots to all voters, Rausch said “that certainly opens up a broader conversation about whether we can and should do this going forward for all of our elections, but right now, and I think this is true for all policy questions that the Legislature is looking at right now right now, we’re focused on a crisis.”
The bill would reduce the number of poll workers required to be at a polling place and make sure those workers receive personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Voting rights advocates say the state should permanently implement a process to automatically mail ballots to registered voters. In a policy brief released in April, MassVOTE recommended automatically mailing registered voters a ballot, a pre-paid return envelope to submit their ballot and a secrecy sleeve.
For unenrolled voters, the organization recommends that Massachusetts replicates a system similar to Utah’s where local election officials notify them by mail that they should request one of the state’s four ballots and give those voters enough time to request and submit those ballots.
“As a result, unenrolled voters have the burden shifted off of them, and are treated equally with enrolled voter,” the brief states.
MassVOTE are backing the bill filed Tuesday by Lawn and Moran, saying it helps establish practical parameters for a vote-by-mail process in November.
“The last thing we want to do is feed the beast of voter fraud, problems with vote-by-mail. We want this process to move forward in as safe, secure a manner as possible, maximizing accessibility, but also recognizing the limitations we currently face,” said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager for MassVOTE. “We would love to see a bill that sees full-on vote by mail for the primary, but we just don’t have the time to implement that.”
Galvin is wary of proposals that would automatically mail ballots to Massachusetts households. He argued those proposals make good press but are impractical.
“We don’t know if some of the people on the voters list are well, are they still there, did they move? Mailing lists, even good mailing lists that are vetted, sometimes have issues,” Galvin told MassLive in a recent interview. “This is about the voters. It’s not about campaign strategy. It’s not about a press release. It’s about the integrity of the voter process.”
Psilakis, however, argues that Massachusetts has the resources to implement a vote-by-mail process that doesn’t put the onus on voters to request ballots.
“We don’t care about publicity. We don’t care about making a big name for ourselves. We care about serving the people of Massachusetts, and we are fighting for the safest, most inclusive solution possible to make sure that people can speak their minds in November,” Psilakis said. “We understand the details, we understand how complex the process is, but we’re digging into those details.”