BOSTON (State House News Service) - The Legislature on Wednesday advanced a constitutional amendment aimed at facilitating early voting and more widespread use of absentee voting in Massachusetts, but Senate President Therese Murray said the lengthy amendment process is just one option available to reform supporters.
“I would like to see it happen. I would like to see it come through as legislation so it could be done sooner. A lot of people are disenfranchised, particularly people who live in my communities who travel to work sometimes north of Boston, leave before the polls open and get home when the polls are closed,” Murray told the News Service after she gaveled her proposal forward and then closed down the convention until next March.
Lawmakers meeting in a brief Constitutional Convention Wednesday advanced the constitutional amendment (S 12) that would allow registered voters in Massachusetts to cast their ballots at polling places during the 10 days leading up to a scheduled election. The amendment would also allow any voter to request an absentee ballot, regardless of the circumstance.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting, on average 22 days before the election. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow registered voters to vote absentee for any reason.
With Murray presiding over the 1 p.m. convention, the proposal was quickly advanced on a voice vote and without debate before the convention recessed until March 12, 2014, when the proposal and others on the calendar could receive further attention. Prior to the convention, a Murray spokeswoman had declined to provide any insight into whether lawmakers would vote on any amendments or recess the convention as they had earlier this year.
To take effect, constitutional amendments must be approved by two successive Legislatures and then by the voters. That means the earliest such a plan could reach the ballot would be November 2016.
Murray said she would prefer to see early voting implemented sooner through legislation rather than going through the process of amending the Constitution, but called Wednesday’s action a “first step” as the Committee on Election Laws, co-chaired by Sen. Barry Finegold and Rep. James Murphy, considers bills before the committee.
“You have to have a reason to vote absentee. It means you’re out of the country or something, or in the hospital. You shouldn’t have to do that. If you have the right to vote, you should be able to vote,” Murray said.
If early voting is embraced in Massachusetts, lawmakers would likely need to address costs associated with it.
At the outset of the new session in January, Murray identified early voting as a priority issue to consider. Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, told the News Service earlier this year that he expected a major push in the new session to facilitate early voting, a change that some have described as "no excuse" absentee voting.
Straus believes the change will increase voting. While Democrats outnumber Republicans by about a three to one ratio in Massachusetts, he has said the reform should be viewed as a "non-partisan effort."
Massachusetts currently allows eligible voters to cast absentee ballots if they will be absent from their city or town on Election Day, have a disability that prevents them from voting at the polling place, or if they cannot vote at the polls due to religious beliefs.
Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees voting and elections, has supported an early voting constitutional amendment, which he has called "really absentee without any excuses."
"We really should do away with any reasons. In some places it's called no excuse absentee voting," Galvin said at a public hearing in March. Galvin urged the Legislature to approve the change as soon as possible since he said the process requires a constitutional change. "I think it's an issue that people from both parties and all persuasions can agree on. We want to give voters their maximum potential to participate," Galvin said at the hearing.
Galvin last year said he believed early voting would require passage of a constitutional amendment.
"In Massachusetts, eligibility for absentee is contained in the state constitution so you have to amend the constitution to provide that kind of service. We have supported efforts to do so. The Legislature has not passed them therefore they have not gone before the people, which they would have to if we were to go to that,” he said.
Some voting rights advocates believe early voting, as opposed to expanded absentee voting, could be accomplished through passage of a state law rather than a change to the Constitution, since the Constitution references absentee voting but not early voting.
The Legislature voted to support no-excuse absentee voting during the 2006 Constitution Convention, but did not take it up again the following session when the issue of gay marriage dominated attention.