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Plan to expand mail-in voting faces pushback

By Christian M. Wade Statehouse Reporter

BOSTON — Voters will be able to request mail-in ballots ahead of the upcoming elections under a proposal working its way through Beacon Hill, but voting rights groups say the changes won't go far enough.

The proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, would allow registered voters to request absentee ballots for the Sept. 1 state primary and Nov. 3 presidential election. The measure has already cleared a key legislative committee but has yet to be approved by the full House and Senate.

The ballots will be mailed to voters' homes and would have to be returned to local election clerks at least one week before the election to be counted.

The changes also allow in-person early voting ahead of the fall primary and general elections. The state has already allowed early voting twice ahead of general elections in 2016 and 2018, but not for a state primary. Cities and towns would have to make early voting available for a set number of hours each day, from Aug. 22-28 for the primary and Oct. 17-30 for the presidential election.

"This will expand voter options, make people feel safer casting ballots and encourage more participation in the elections," said Finegold, Senate co-chair of the Election Laws Committee, which voted to advance the bill. "People will still have the option to vote on Election Day, and we've made it easier for election clerks to process ballots."

Voting rights groups say the measure is a step in the right direction, but they say requiring people to request ballots will create barriers for some voters and a burden for city and towns election clerks. They want early ballots mailed to all of the state's 4.5 million registered voters ahead of both elections.

"Though an application is certainly better than nothing, voters must still return that application, receive a ballot, and return that too," said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director at MassVOTE. "This continuous mailing will place more work on voters and local election officials, taking up more time and costs than would come with simply mailing everyone a ballot automatically."

Finegold said the requirement to request a ballot, versus automatically mailing them to voters, is meant as a safeguard to prevent fraud.

State laws already allow voting by mail ahead of elections held before June 30. Voters can also request mail-in, absentee ballots for the fall elections, but they must have an allowed excuse, such as a disability. The state recently began allowing people concerned about contracting COVID-19 to request absentee ballots.

Democrats across the country have been pushing to expand voting by mail in response to the pandemic, but they have run into GOP opposition. Republican President Donald Trump has lobbied against efforts in Congress to allow voting by mail, claiming the process is "corrupt" and will lead to fraud.

Several states hit hard by the pandemic, including New York and New Jersey, have expanded voting by mail. Dozens of others are weighing similar changes.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has endorsed the idea, saying the state will hold its election by mail in the fall if health risks are still a concern.

On Beacon Hill, House lawmakers are expected to take up the bill during a remote formal session on Wednesday. The Senate could follow next week.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who isn't up for reelection this year, has not said if he supports efforts to expand voting by mail. But Baker recently questioned the urgency of pushing through changes to the voting system, with the primary and general elections still months away.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

This Story originally appeared in the Gloucester Times. Check it out here.

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