Mail-in voting expansion could complicate Boston election calendar

Boston Statehouse

FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mail box in Omaha, Neb. U.S. Postal Service warnings that it can’t guarantee ballots sent by mail will arrive on time have put a spotlight on the narrow timeframes most states allow to request and return those ballots. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Boston election officials are pushing city councilors to move the city’s September preliminary election up by a week in anticipation of potential legislative action that could extend voting by mail provisions into the fall or make the option a permanent fixture in state election law.

Public officials, including Secretary of State William Galvin, have praised the ability of voting by mail to boost election turnout. But with that, local election officials have pointed to the large volume of work associated with sending out ballot applications, receiving them, distributing ballots, and then counting them.

The Boston City Council’s Committee on Government Operations held a hearing Tuesday morning on an order proposed by former Mayor Marty Walsh that would move the city’s preliminary election from Sept. 21 to Sept. 14.

“Due to a potential expansion of vote by mail to include the fall elections, the timeframe for certifying election results and the department’s requirement to hold a ballot position drawing, the original date would create a challenge for the printing and distribution of vote by mail ballots,” Walsh wrote in a letter accompanying the order.

Citing a need to act in a proactive manner, Boston Commissioner of Elections Eneida Tavares said her department would be faced with a tight turnaround between the preliminary and general elections to print and distribute vote by mail ballots if a change was not made.

Ballots for the November election cannot be printed until the certification of the preliminary election results on Sept. 27 — provided there are no petitions for recounts — and a ballot position drawing would occur at the earliest on Sept. 28.

Only after the drawing can election officials send the information over to the city’s printer for ballot creation. After that, the ballots need to be proofread, which Tavares said would be completed no sooner than Oct. 7.

“That leaves us with about three weeks to mail ballots to voters and for them to get it back to the election department in enough time to be counted for the general election,” Tavares told Boston city councilors on Tuesday morning. “And the reason why we decided to go with the September date is I don’t think there’s anything that allows us to move the date of the election from November.”

A recent law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker extended voting by mail provisions used in the 2020 elections through June 30 to help facilitate hundreds of city and town elections scheduled for this spring. But that law is slated to expire before Boston and other cities hold their municipal elections, which in the capital includes a high-profile race for mayor.

While extending or making permanent voting by mail in Massachusetts would take legislative action, Boston city councilors reserve the right to move the preliminary election date under state law without the need for a home rule petition.

Several bills have already been filed to cement voting by mail in the state, including one offered by Sen. Barry Finegold and Secretary Galvin (S 468) and another from Rep. John Lawn and Sen. Cynthia Creem (H 805 / S 459), dubbed the VOTES Act.

Aside from the extension of voting by mail provisions through June 30, there has not been any major action on voting by mail legislation so far in the 2021-2022 session. In March, House Speaker Ronald Mariano said he planned to work with House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz and House Election Laws Committee Chairman Dan Ryan to “make vote by mail permanent in Massachusetts.”

“As we know, the Legislature doesn’t usually move very fast,” Tavares said. “So we don’t want to find ourselves in the position where vote by mail is expanded, and then we’re scrambling to get something moved. And it’s probably not a good idea to change the date of the preliminary at the last minute either, which is why we’re here trying to be proactive in getting the date of the preliminary changed.”

Councilor Kenzie Bok expressed some concern with moving the preliminary election date, saying voters tend not to give local elections close attention until after Labor Day, which this year is on Sept. 6.

“It’s certainly been my experience throughout my life as a volunteer, and now and then a candidate in political life in Boston, that there is a kind of intensity of focus on our local city elections that comes only after Labor Day,” Bok said during the hearing. “And the disadvantage to me of moving the preliminary a week earlier would be that, instead of having two weeks after Labor Day, you would have only one.”

Bok questioned whether there were alternative options to expedite administrative work associated with mail-in voting between the preliminary and general elections. Tavares said “there really is not because of the certification process.”

“We can’t certify the elections until six days after the preliminary election,” Tavares said. “And then the charter requires that we hold a ballot position drawing, following that. So after the ballot position drawing is when we can actually submit the names to our printer for creation of our ballots. So we really can’t expedite anything.”

There is some precedent for moving the date of a preliminary election. In 2015, Tavares said, the city moved the date of the preliminary back two weeks because it conflicted with Jewish holidays.

“It was done by the same manner, which is how we modeled this request as well,” Tavares said. “Should this not change, again, we will make elections work as we always do, under the current laws, it just will provide for a very short turnaround time for us to mail the ballots to the voters.”

Tavares also said that election officials plan to mail ballot applications to all registered voters in the upcoming fall cycle, a move that she said would help raise awareness in the event that the preliminary election date changes.

“The election dates will be on there and they’ll have to actually select the elections that they want to participate in,” she said. “I believe that that’s going to be a huge piece to making voters aware that there is actually a preliminary election and the date of the preliminary election.”

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