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Massachusetts lawmakers closer to bringing early, mail-in voting options to 2020 elections

By Steph Solis | ssolis@masslive.com


Massachusetts residents should expect to be able to vote by mail in a general election for the first time in state history, lawmakers say as they move closer toward getting voting legislation to the governor’s desk.

The $8 million voting reform would send applications to residents statewide to enable them to vote by mail in the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general election — a first in Massachusetts. It would also allow early voting ahead of the primary.


Lawmakers said Monday they reconciled differences between the House and Senate bills teed up the bill, H. 4829, for final votes Tuesday and Thursday for the House and Senate, respectively. If approved, the bill lands on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.


“The goal was to provide options, make it easier for people to vote this fall despite COVID-19, and give clerks the tools they need to process the ballots expeditiously,” Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and chair of the Senate Election Laws Committee. “We’ve accomplished that in this bill.”


Massachusetts voters have mailed in ballots in recent local elections to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but this bill would make state history in making the option widely available to residents for a primary and general election. It also requires safety standards for polling places to let voters cast their ballots in person.


The legislation labels COVID-19 a physical disability for which one could qualify for an absentee ballot, at least until Dec. 31.


It would also implement social distancing parameters in polling places where people would vote in person, should they choose to do so, and require proper notification of polling location changes.


The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 8,000 people statewide, prompted voting rights advocates to push for more remote voting options and protections for those voting in person.


A recent Suffolk University poll for WGBH News, MassLive, The Boston Globe and the State House News Service found that 24.8% of voters expect to vote by mail this fall, 61.4% said they would vote in person and nearly 12% said they were undecided.


The House and Senate voted on their versions of a vote-by-mail bill earlier this month. They formed a conference committee to negotiate the differences in their bills, including deadlines for vote-by-mail applications.

The latest version of the bill requires the Secretary of Stare’s office to mail early voting applications to all residents by July 15 for the primary and by Sept. 14 for the general election, as well as directs the office with creating an online portal with electronic applications for mail-in ballots. The secretary’s office would have to conduct a public awareness campaign on the new voting option and parameters.


The office also would need to create the portal no later than Oct. 1.


Applications for early voting and absentee voting would need to be received four business days before the election, which is similar to the House version’s provision that put the deadline at the Friday before each election.


Under the bill, mail-in ballots must be postmarked on or before Nov. 3 to count. Those ballots will be counted until 5 p.m. Nov. 6.


Those who vote in person would also need to be properly notified of changing polling places at least 20 days in advance of the change, under a provision that originated from the Senate version of the legislation. Communities would also need to issue a report three days before the polling location change on the potential impact on voters based on race, national origin, disability, income or age.


The Election Modernization Coalition, which includes Common Cause Massachusetts, MassVOTE and other groups pushing for the bill, issued a statement urging lawmakers to quickly pass the legislation and Baker to sign it once it lands on his desk.


“The first ballot application mailing is slated to go out July 15, in just 16 days. If Governor Baker does not sign the bill quickly, this deadline will be difficult to meet,” the statement reads. “The coalition urges the Governor to sign the H. 4820 immediately so that election administrators and local election officials can implement the legislation as soon as possible and advocates and others can begin educating voters about these important changes.”


This story originally appeared on Masslive.com Check it out here!

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