Senate Voting Access Bill Resembles House Plan
By Chris Van Buskirk, State House News Service
BOSTON (SHNS) – A wide-ranging vote-by-mail bill is on the move after the Senate Ways and Means Committee endorsed the bill Tuesday, teeing it up for likely passage by the full Senate next week.
The bill (S 2755) largely mirrors a version the House passed 155-1 last week but adds a provision to cut down on mailing costs and requires the secretary of state’s office to create an online portal for requesting early and absentee ballots.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee voted 15-0 to report the bill out favorably with Sens. Jason Lewis, Ryan Fattman, and Dean Tran listed as taking “no action.”
The Senate adopted an order Tuesday queueing up the bill for next Tuesday’s formal session and setting an initial amendment deadline for Thursday at 2 p.m.
Groups that favor expanded voting rights have made a major push for the bill, saying it will open up new avenues for voting that will reduce crowds at the polls and help people avoid COVID-19 infection risks.
Election Laws Senate Chair Barry Finegold told the News Service that Secretary of State William Galvin’s office would include general election applications for voting-by-mail in the yearly voter information guide that is mailed to all residential addresses in the state in order to save money. The Senate bill features language calling for applications to be included in the guide.
The estimated cost for the state to implement the efforts detailed in the bill sits at $8 million with a large portion dedicated to paying for return postage on ballots. Finegold said the state can use funds it received in the CARES Act — a federal COVID-19 relief package — to cover the costs.
“In the CARES Act, we can use that money for postage return for ballots,” the Andover Democrat said. “We can’t use it to send out the application. That is why we wanted to combine the voters’ guide with the application for the general.”
The Senate version also includes a firm Oct. 1 deadline for Galvin to create an online portal for voters to request an early or absentee ballot. The House version required Galvin to submit a report to the Committee on Election Laws detailing his progress on the portal by Aug. 15.
MassVote Policy and Communications Manager Alex Psilakis said while it’s encouraging to see a concrete deadline for the online portal, it’s disappointing that it won’t be created until after the Sept. 1 primaries.
“In Massachusetts, many of November’s elections are really decided in September. So that’s somewhat disappointing,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “But we understand that these elections are coming up way faster than any of us are really ready for. So to have a portal in place for the November election is better than nothing.”
The legislation directs Galvin to send out applications for mail-in ballots by July 15 and provide early voting options before the September primary and November general election. Voters will have three options for the upcoming 2020 elections – early voting periods, voting in person, and voting by mail.
House lawmakers took two days to hash out what voting-by-mail would like in the commonwealth for the 2020 primaries and general elections. The legislation was also the first serious test of the lower chamber’s new remote voting format for a bill with multiple amendments drawing debate.
Vote-by-mail advocates previously raised concerns with the delivery requirements for mail-in ballots. The bill does not address which mailing method the state will use for return ballots — options include first class or bulk mail. Under the Senate bill, the state is required to pay for return envelopes but the postage class is not specified.
The Massachusetts Town Clerks Association praised the House bill Friday, saying it addressed key concerns of local clerks such as allowing them to tabulate votes prior to Election Day. One concern of the association, however, resided in the front-end process of requesting a ballot — a labor intensive operation for clerks.
As for what option Finegold will use come Election Day, he said he’ll show up to the polls.
“Voting is that game day where it’s like, you can feel it in the air,” he said. “You see people out holding signs, you just feel the energy and call me a traditionalist, but I do love to vote in person.”