Massachusetts vote-by-mail bills take shape
Spurred by coronavirus threat, Massachusetts vote-by-mail bills take shape as 2020 elections draw closer
Posted Jun 16, 11:02 AM
With the state primary fewer than 90 days away, Massachusetts lawmakers are closer to expanding vote-by-mail options to prevent citizens from contracting the coronavirus when they cast their ballots.
State legislators say they’re increasingly confident that they will get a vote-by-mail bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk this month. If he signs the bill into law, households across the state will get applications enabling voters to request mail ballots.
In communities across Massachusetts, ballots stuffed inside drop boxes outside Town Hall could replace lines of people waiting to cast their votes on Election Day. Those who do vote in-person on Election Day, or in the days leading up to it, would be met with masked poll workers.
The next step that takes Massachusetts closer to that reality comes on Tuesday when the Senate debates its version of a voting bill, S.2755, on Tuesday.
There are still some details to hash out on the Senate bill, as advocates push for lawmakers to extend how long voters have to request and submit mail ballots. If the bill clears the Senate and the minor differences in the House version are reconciled, Baker could have a vote-by-mail bill on his desk in a matter of weeks.
Baker has been mum on vote-by-mail, initially saying he was unfamiliar with the push for expanded voting options during the COVID-19 pandemic. When last asked about the bills gaining traction on Beacon Hill, he declined to comment, saying he wanted to read the legislation before giving an opinion.
But lawmakers say they are confident the vote-by-mail legislation will be ratified if it lands on the governor’s desk because it minimizes the risk of contracting the coronavirus while voting.
“I think he’ll find it hard to come up with reasons not to support it,” said Sen. James Welch, a West Springfield Democrat. “A lot of people want to make sure they have a safe way to cast their vote this fall.”
Massachusetts is one of at least 12 states weighing bills on absentee ballots and mail voting during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Elected officials and voting rights advocates in Massachusetts have expressed concerns about the public health risks poll workers and people voting in-person could face with the lingering threat of COVID-19. Dozens of people who voted in-person in Wisconsin tested positive for the coronavirus, though it was unclear how many of them, if any, caught the virus at the polls.
In Massachusetts, more than 105,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 7,647 people have died as of Monday. The number of positive COVID-19 tests continues to decline, but state officials say they are monitoring the impact of reopening and the recent protests against police misconduct to see if there’s any spike in cases.
The potential public health implications of reopening, combined with the possibility of a resurgence in the fall, prompted lawmakers to move forward with legislation that would enable Massachusetts residents to vote in more than one way.
The House passed a bill earlier this month that directed the Secretary of State’s office to send applications to Massachusetts households to voters can request mail-in ballots, among other provisions that are also in the Senate bill.
“Depending on what the bill looks like when it comes through the Senate, there is going to be that focus making sure people get the applications in to request a ballot early. That’s going to be key,” said Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat who serves on the Joint Committee on Election Laws.
“We certainly don’t want people staying home because they’re afraid about voting in person,” she added.
Tracey Carpenter, an economic and healthcare organizer for the Mass Senior Action Council, said members felt voting should be made easy with mail-in options to prevent spreading COVID-19.
Carpenter said she was surprised as how many of them were ready to have the ballot mailed to their houses.
“They’re going to be mailing in the ballots. A lot of our folks are not going to be participating at the polls,” Carpenter said, also referring to seniors who volunteered as poll workers in previous elections. “I think that comes with a little bit of sadness because they’ve been doing it for years.”
What would change
Both House and Senate bills, which estimate the cost at $8 million, give Massachusetts residents more time to register to vote before upcoming elections in 2020, require frequent use of sanitizers and social distancing at polling places and allow people to request mail-in ballot for early voting and absentee ballots.
According to the bills, COVID-19 would be considered a physical disability for which a voter could qualify for an absentee ballot until Dec. 31.
One of the few differences in the Senate version proposes an online system under the Secretary of State’s office through which people could request early or absentee ballots. The system would have to be functioning by Oct. 1.
The biggest changes in the bills involve implementing parameters to expand voting options during the pandemic. They direct the Secretary of State’s offices to send applications for vote-by-mail to households statewide by July 15 for the primary and Sept. 14 for the general election, with some exceptions.
Voters would get the option to request an early voting ballot in a language other than English or Spanish in the applications, and they would have the option to submit or sign the applications electronically. Under the bills, the applications for the Sept. 1 primary would be due before noon on Aug. 25, a Tuesday. Applications to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election would be due by Oct. 27, also a Tuesday.
Applications for absentee ballots would be due by noon the day before an election, unless it’s a Sunday or a legal holiday. In that case, the deadline would be 5 p.m. on the day before the holiday or Sunday.
If Baker signed vote-by-mail legislation into law, voters seeking to mail-in ballots would receive a package that includes instructions for early voting and completing the ballot, an envelope for the ballot and an affidavit that needs to be filled out and a larger envelope with paid postage.
Neither bill at this point specifies whether the postage would be marked first class or bulk mail.
Those voters would be able to submit their ballots in one of three ways: delivering a ballot by hand to the municipal clerk’s office, leaving it in a secured municipal drop box or mailing it to the clerk.
Those who don’t vote by mail would be able to vote in person on Election Day or days earlier, according to the bills. The early voting period for the primary runs from Aug. 22, a Saturday, until Aug. 28, the following Friday. The early voting period for the general election would run from Oct. 17, a Saturday, until Oct. 30, two Fridays later.
The idea is to give people multiple opportunities to cast their ballot and ideally reduce crowds at polling places, lawmakers say. Another provision that lawmakers say should reduce crowds is one that lets clerks eliminate the “second checkout” requirement, where voters must provide their name and address before submitting their votes into the ballot boxes.
Municipal clerks would be allowed to start tallying the results of mailed ballots ahead of Election Day, which helps ease the burden their offices would face if they receive an influx of mail.
“I do think the state is going to figure this out and run smooth elections, both in September and November, but I think November is what we’re really going to have to brace for because I do think we’ll see higher voter turnout,” Sabadosa said.
Voting rights advocates are making one last push to tweak the Senate bill to give voters more time to request and submit a mail ballot. The Election Modernization Coalition, which includes 80 organizations, sent a letter to Senate President Karen Spilka calling for the passage of three amendments.
One amendment by Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, would make the deadline for requesting a ballot noon of the Friday before the 2020 elections rather than seven days beforehand, as the House bill proposes.
Another amendment by Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, would ensure that ballots are postmarked and that ballots that are postmarked by Election Day are counted, even if they reach the municipal clerk days later.
The third, proposed by Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, expands on the bill’s provision to establish an online portal. The amendment would allow voters to request an early or absentee ballot that would be sent to their home address or a different mailing address of theirs without asking for their signature. The amendment states the portal would need to be functional for the Nov. 3 election and, if feasible, the Sept. 1 election without needing a voter’s signature.
Sen. Becca Rausch, who filed a bill to automatically send ballots to residents, proposed an amendment that would do just that. In a statement to MassLive, the Needham Democrat said a system based on applications for ballots has failed voters: ballots do not arrive on time, applications get lost, people get busy and submit applications too late.
“We also know, based on the data both here and nationwide, that record numbers of people will vote by mail," she said. “We should be doing everything within our power to get ballots directly into the hands of voters.”
Rausch’s amendment has garnered support from several organizations, including MassVOTE, AARP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some voters may go to the polls despite the threat of COVID-19, taking advantage of early voting options. Sabadosa and Rep. Paul Mark, a Peru Democrat, says some voters may want to continue the tradition of exercising their civic duty and picking up an “I Voted” sticker at the polling place.
Perhaps the biggest concern of some of Mark’s constituents is how the state intends to pay for the expanded voting options. When the House debated its voting bill, Mark urged legislators to make sure rural communities have adequate funding so they don’t have to bear the brunt of the cost.
If rural communities get help implementing vote-by-mail options, Mark sees the vote-by-mail legislation for the 2020 races as a key step toward modernizing the state’s election process.
“I think it’s time for momentum to build on changing the constitution to allow for more absentee voting, which would allow for remote voting,” he said. “You want to make sure that in spite of your work schedule you’re able to participate in democracy. I’ve heard people talk about for years, ‘Why isn’t Election Day a holiday? Why isn’t it done on a weekend?’”
In the meantime, Peru will put its own electoral process to the test at the annual town election on June 27. The town has of nearly 850 people tested 46 residents and recorded fewer than five COVID-19 cases, but it will accept mailed ballots, as well as early voting, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The last time Mark voted in Peru, he was in the basement of Town Hall placing his ballot in a wooden ballot box he cranked by hand.
“I imagine it’ll be that still," he said, “but there will be fewer people in the building.”