MA Vote By Mail Bill Can't Wait Until Summer
Voting rights advocates on Wednesday said legislation expanding vote-by-mail options for the 2020 primary and general elections cannot wait until the end of the legislative session this summer. Pamela Wilmot, executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause, said she would like to see lawmakers take up legislation next week. But the Legislature has turned its attention to the governor’s $1 billion bond bill for IT improvements and has budget proposals underway. “We’ll see what the Legislature decides, but time is absolutely of the essence and it needs to go now," Wilmot said. The wheels of Beacon Hill turned slowly in the eyes of advocates before the coronavirus pandemic. Now that most lawmakers are working from home, they are reviewing a series of bills related to COVID-19. With the end of the session a little over two months away, the House and Senate still have to release their budget proposals for fiscal 2021 and tackle their original priorities, including the contested $18 billion transportation bond bill. Neither Senate President Karen Spilka nor House Speaker Robert DeLeo gave an exact date for when lawmakers will plan to take up vote-by-mail bills. Spokespeople for both Spilka and DeLeo said the House and the Senate each plan to work with lawmakers and stakeholders to discuss expanding voting for the September primary and the November election. “Our elections are the foundation of our democracy and must remain safe and accessible to all residents of Massachusetts, especially as this public health pandemic continues to unfold," Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said in a statement last week after a Joint Committee on Election Laws hearing. A coalition of voting rights groups, including Common Cause and MassVOTE, backed legislation that would expand early voting options for the Sept. 1 election and automatically send ballots to registered voters’ homes for the general election on Nov. 3. It also requires the state to to implement social distancing and sanitization rules at polling places for those who cast their ballots in person. The bill filed by Reps. John Lawn and Michael Moran, HD. 5075, would require the Secretary of State’s office mail absentee ballots and corresponding paperwork to all registered voters in the state before the general election in November. The bill would classify hospitalization, quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19 as a qualifying disability under the state constitution that allows voters to receive absentee ballots by mail. The House referred Lawn’s bill to the Joint Committee on Election Laws. A spokesperson for Spilka’s office said lawmakers anticipate concurring with the House’s referral to the committee when they tune in for session Thursday. The automatic mailing provision sparked criticism from Secretary of State William Galvin, who is pushing to get his own voting proposal approved. Galvin’s office plans to begin printing ballots as soon as June 2. “We’re not talking about mailing the ballots out to everybody whether they ask for it or not. You’d have to request a ballot,” Galvin told MassLive before outlining his own recommendations to legislators a memo. “That’s good for press releases, not so good for elections.” Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager for MassVOTE, said advocates understand the process is complicated but that making sure voters automatically receive a ballot will make sure everyone has input in the general election. “We want to make sure the process is as safe and secure and prepared as possible in November, but because we’re in the middle of a crisis. We can only compromise so much," Psilakis said. “We need to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard this November.” Other bills seek to expand voting options by Massachusetts residents. Sen. Becca Rausch and Rep. Adrian Madaro filed legislation, S.2654, that would require the state to get mail-in ballots to voters registered with a party at least 18 days before a state election, including the state primary. The bill also would make Election Day a holiday and require the state to provide personal protective equipment to poll workers. Rausch suggested at a recent legislative hearing that automatic mailing would not only increase access to voting but make the process easier for local election clerks. “Imagine what might happen when 98% of the people who normally vote in a primary submit a request to their clerks (for mail-in ballots),” Rausch said during the hearing, according to the State House News Service. “That’s a tremendous number of ballot requests to process.” Expanding vote-by-mail options have garnered attention of advocates and political candidates across the state, including Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who is running for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s seat. “It absolutely cannot wait another month. It has to happen now. Election officials need to prepare for the fall, and they need to do it as soon as possible,” Wilmot said.