Lawmakers want to extend voting by mail
By Christian M. Wade
BOSTON — Mail-in voting allowed millions of people to cast ballots this fall while avoiding Election Day crowds and fears of COVID-19. With a state law allowing expanded mail-in voting set to expire at the end of the year, some lawmakers want to extend the rules to cover next spring's municipal elections. A proposal tacked onto the $46 billion Senate budget, which will be debated beginning Tuesday, would allow for early and mail-in voting through June 30, 2021. The proposal, if approved, would effectively extend a law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in July in response to the pandemic. "It makes a lot of sense to extend it through the spring," said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager for MassVOTE, a non-partisan group that works on voter outreach.
"A short-term measure will keep things going, but something more permanent is needed." The proposed changes come as the pandemic rages, with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rising again, nationally and locally. Many cities and towns hold local elections in the spring, and it's not clear if any of the vaccines under development will be widely available by then. It's not known if the amendment, filed by Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, has enough support to pass. A House version of the budget, approved last week, didn't include a provision extending mail-in voting. But Beacon Hill's policymakers have touted the success of vote-by-mail in the recent elections.
Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, who helped write the law that temporarily expanded mail-in balloting and early voting, said he thinks the changes should be made permanent. "But there needs to be some tweaks," said Finegold, who co-chairs the Legislature's Committee on Election Laws. "For one, we need to do a better job on voter education." Many snags with mail-in ballots in the state primary and general election arose from voter mistakes, such as not signing the ballot or missing a deadline to submit it to local election clerks. Until this election season, Massachusetts only allowed mail-in voting for absentee ballots. Voters also needed an excuse, such as a disability, not to cast their votes in person.
Overall, the state's voters enthusiastically embraced mail-in and early voting. In the Sept. 1 state primary, about 814,000 ballots were cast by mail — more than 47% of all votes. That number jumped to more than 2.3 million mail-in votes for the Nov. 3 election, with some cities and towns reporting 60% of the ballots cast by mail. "The results clearly speak for themselves," Psilakis said. "But I think moving forward we need to see something more concrete."
Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees elections, supports expanded mail-in voting and is expected to submit his own proposal next legislative session.