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The rush to expand options for those who can’t vote in person has left behind some glaring gaps

By Jazmine Ulloa / Globe Staff

Mary Bertin lives in Boston now. But she can still vividly remember watching the Freedom riders step off their bus into an unruly mob in her hometown of Anniston, Ala., in 1961. And she was in church with her parents and grandparents the day they all learned how to register to vote and fill out the ballot after years of disenfranchisement.

“For people like me, voting is an intricate part of who I am,” said Bertin, 74, who is Black and has voted in every presidential election since she was 18. “It is more than just a right, it is a debt of gratitude to all of those people who literally gave their lives, were beaten up, were thrown in jail.”

The pandemic has erected a unique hurdle to exercising that right this year: fear of exposure to the virus at polling places, a fear which Bertin feels powerfully.

A diabetic and cancer survivor, she does not want to risk voting in person.

The solution is ramping up mail-in voting. And even in a deep blue state like Massachusetts, achieving that goal has come hard.

Governor Charlie Baker signed a law in July allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail this year without having to provide a reason. All 4.5 million registered voters were supposed to receive a mail-in ballot application. But Secretary of State William Galvin took so long to send out the forms for the Sept. 1 primary that Bertin and eight other Black, Latino, Asian, and elderly plaintiffs, along with voter outreach groups Common Cause and MassVOTE, petitioned a judge to urge Galvin to follow the law. Their concerns only grew as the US Postal Service warned state officials that mail-in ballots could arrive late and go uncounted.

“I hit the panic button,” said Bertin.

Now, as Nov. 3 approaches, it’s not just logistics that voting rights activists worry could cost people their opportunity to vote in Massachusetts and nationwide. Weary parents juggling work and homeschooling or struggling to provide for their families after the economic collapse might not pay attention to the details about how to request a ballot or when to send it in. In some Native American reservations, the option to vote by mail is not a tidy solution, as many people don’t have traditional mailing addresses or Internet access to check the status of the forms.

For some indigenous populations and immigrants whose primary language is not English, the barriers are greater still. Ballots — as well as information about how to obtain, fill out, and turn them in — must be translated, and counties often don’t have the resources to do that. The problems are especially acute for Asian American voters, the fastest-growing voter bloc in the United States, the majority of whom were born in other countries.

“In the best of times, there are barriers to participation,” said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “But without a full commitment by the federal government to tackle those impediments, it makes it even harder.”

In Massachusetts, Asian American activists spent years trying to secure bilingual ballots in a variety of languages, including Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Over her 11 years working on the issue in Boston’s Chinatown, Jian Hua Tang, 70, with Chinese Progressive Political Action, sat through “endless meetings, endless lobbying at City Hall, when it rained, when it shined, when it snowed.”

Some voters have already reported trouble. The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell sent a letter to Galvin requesting new information in Khmer about mail-in ballot applications after the initial batches were almost completely in English and Spanish, with only a paragraph in the Cambodian language telling voters where to call for a ballot. The text was garbled in places, making it nearly impossible to read.

Van Ma (right) and Sophia Keang (left), from the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, knocked on doors and distributed fliers on how to vote by mail.

On a rainy September day, Vanmey Ma, 22, the civic engagement and organizing coordinator with the Cambodian assistance association, and two interns carried orange canvas bags stuffed with envelopes of mail-in voting and US Census information through a Lowell neighborhood. After the pandemic disrupted her college graduation and career plans, she returned to the city where she was born and raised and is helping to get out the vote.

“While we are moving forward and building a new home in the US, we also want to bridge the gap between the first generation and the newest generation,” she said of educating voters.

Some days are rough. People don’t answer the phone and those who do aren’t interested. Increasing hostility toward immigration under the Trump administration has led some new citizens to refuse to fill out their ballots out of fear. And among older Cambodian Americans, who arrived in the United States as refugees and distrust government, there is still much stigma and suspicion around voting.

But Ma said there are also reasons to hope. She and others point excitedly to the massive turnout during the primary: With more than 1.7 million ballots cast, the September primary had the highest turnout in 30 years, largely because so many people voted by mail.

In her cozy condo in downtown Boston, where tomes of Black literature fill the shelves, Bertin said the numbers showed that Massachusetts should allow expanded voting by mail during every election, not just in the middle of a pandemic.

“I hope they keep it,” she said. “People should have the choice.”

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe. Check it out here!

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