BOSTON (SHNS) – Speaker after speaker told lawmakers Thursday that more opportunities to vote by mail and more early voting will help the statewide elections in September and November proceed with minimal risks of COVID-19 transmission.
But on the specific details of how to do that — whether to mail ballots to every voter or only those who request one, how long in-person early voting periods should last, and how polling places should be spread out to maintain social distancing — there was frequent disagreement.
The Legislature’s Election Laws Committee did not take immediate action Thursday after hearing testimony from a range of stakeholders. When it does, its members will need to balance competing preferences from the state’s top elections official, municipal leaders, and their own colleagues, all with the clock ticking and Secretary of State William Galvin hoping to begin printing ballots as soon as June 2.
“The window to pass it in a timely manner is certainly shrinking,” John Rosenberry, Galvin’s legislative director, said at the committee’s virtual hearing Thursday.
At least eight different COVID-19 election reform bills are before the committee, plus a proposal Galvin unveiled last week that has not yet been submitted as its own standalone legislation. All target reforms to election processes for the Sept. 1 state primary election and Nov. 3 general election, but they diverge on key details.
The biggest gap is over how the state should handle mail-in voting, a practice that will allow voters to exercise their democratic rights while decreasing crowds at polling places as a public health precaution.
Several of the bills, including one filed by the committee’s co-chair Rep. John Lawn (HD 5075), would require officials to mail ballots to every eligible voter in Massachusetts, which they could fill out at home and send back to clerks to be counted.
Supporters of that practice argued Thursday that it is the best way to reduce barriers for voters and that, by cutting out the application process, eases some of the burden on local election officials.
“Imagine what might happen when 98 percent of the people who normally vote in a primary submit a request to their clerks (for mail-in ballots),” said Sen. Becca Rausch, who filed a similar bill (S 2654) that also establishes Election Day as a holiday. “That’s a tremendous number of ballot requests to process.”
Congressman Joe Kennedy III kicked off the hearing by throwing his support behind the idea of universal mail-in voting, warning that the right to vote is vulnerable to being damaged by the pandemic without action from state lawmakers.
“No-fault absentee ballots just aren’t going to be good enough,” Kennedy said. “Seven days of early voting is not good enough. Mailing ballots to some, but not all, is not good enough.”
That idea rankled some stakeholders, however.
Galvin previously flagged concerns that election officials would not know which primary ballot to send unenrolled voters, who make up the largest segment of the electorate. Billerica Republican Rep. Marc Lombardo, a member of the committee, cautioned that proactive mailing could raise concerns about election security.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said at Thursday’s hearing that if municipalities had to mail the ballots, they would face “significant financial strain” and workforce resource issues.
“A lot of what I’m talking about is staffing and making sure we have appropriate staffing for this, because we’ve never seen the potential magnitude of mail-in ballots we’re going to see in this year’s elections,” Walsh said.
Other bills before the committee still aim to authorize widespread voting by mail without the same mandate to reach the full electorate.
A proposal from Sen. Cynthia Creem (S 2653) would make mail-in ballots available to all eligible voters, not just those who qualify for absentee ballots under existing law, so long as they submitted a formal application. She said sending ballots to voters who request them as her bill suggests would be feasible for both upcoming statewide elections, but that universal mail-in voting in the September primary is “impossible.”
“I realized there are too many obstacles standing in the way for that to happen and too little time to fix them for that to happen in September,” she said.
One bill from Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Adam Hinds (H 4699) that the duo described as a compromise would require state officials to mail every voter an application for a ballot, an approach they said addresses Galvin’s concern about sending the proper primary voting materials.
The lawmakers, like several of their colleagues, called for the secretary’s office to use federal COVID-19 election relief funding outlined in the CARES Act and for funding previously made available in the 2002 Help America Vote Act to offset the mailing costs.
“The need to protect the health and safety of our citizens should not be compromised by the price of a postage stamp,” Roy said.
Galvin unveiled his proposal last week, suggesting a system in which voters could request a mail-in ballot electronically or in writing with no excuses needed. Early voting would be offered before the primary — which would be a first for the state — for seven days and before the general election for 18 days.
That, too, drew some concerns: Walsh said the 18-day early-voting period would begin just two days after the close of voter registration, meaning “the city’s ability to process voter applications in time for the start of early vote will certainly be compromised.”
Pressure is growing to find consensus and make some changes to the state’s election system before the summer arrives. Local and state election officials say they need additional funding to grapple with new challenges, such as ensuring poll workers have personal protective equipment.
Under Galvin’s current guidance, voters could request absentee ballots because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but many advocates called for an expanded system outlined in statute so that election departments can prepare and avoid the long lines or logistical hurdles observed in other states that have conducted springtime elections amid the pandemic.
“Regardless of what we do, we’re going to see an increase of absentee balloting from the current rate of 3 to 5 percent to 70, 60, 80, 90 percent,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, which supports universal vote-by-mail. “When you add on the request process, it’s astronomical.”
Mail-in voting will be broadly allowed for special elections on the horizon under a law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in March. On May 19, voters will elect senators for the Plymouth and Barnstable District and for the Second Hampden and Hampshire District, and on June 2, they will choose representatives in the Third Bristol District and the 37th Middlesex District.
All four districts are without representation after their former lawmakers resigned mid-term.
Asked about proposals for September and November mail-in voting during a Thursday press conference on the COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. Charlie Baker replied, “Honestly, I haven’t spent any time thinking about it at all.”
The governor, who has been focused on managing the COVID-19 crisis, then said the upcoming special elections, though, will require ballots being cast by mail as outlined in the law he signed in March. “There would be no way to have those elections other than to have some sort of mail-in capacity for them,” Baker said.