Pandemic-era voting reforms made permanent in Senate bill

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Just more than two months before COVID-era voting provisions are set to expire, the Senate will debate an elections reform bill next week that would make mail-in voting and expanded early voting permanent options and align Massachusetts with more than 20 other states that allow same-day voter registration, a change that might meet resistance from the governor.

Senate Democrats released an elections overhaul bill on Thursday, scheduling it for debate and a vote on Wednesday, Oct. 6. They touted the proposal as a way to remove obstacles to the ballot box and to build on changes that suddenly gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill (S 2545) goes beyond enshrining changes already embraced on a temporary basis, allowing prospective voters to register for the first time or update their registration and cast a ballot on the same day, a change known as same-day registration. It would also create new supports for voters with disabilities and impose additional requirements on correctional facilities to ensure the thousands of incarcerated residents still eligible to vote can access ballots.

While unveiling the bill alongside voting rights advocates, Senate President Karen Spilka linked it to election proposals being weighed or approved in states with Republican legislative majorities.

“An anti-democratic, fundamentally un-American darkness is spreading across the United States as some states act to actually restrict legally eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” Spilka said. “While no longer as blatantly racist as Jim Crow-era laws, the intended effect is unfortunately the same: to strip the fundamental right of voting from people of color, young people, people from low-income backgrounds and other historically disenfranchised groups.”

While Democrats were unable to derail voting law changes in states where Republicans have electoral advantages, Republicans in the Massachusetts Legislature are similarly unable to exercise major influence on most bills and some of the voting reforms have won GOP support here. The big question as the Senate bill starts to move forward is whether House and Senate Democrats can agree on details.

Under the Senate bill, voters would permanently be able to cast early ballots by mail in any election. The secretary of state would be required to launch an online application portal and to send applications for mail-in ballots by July 15 in every even-numbered year, with applicants able to request ballots for the primary and the general elections.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues said the prepaid postage carries a minimum price tag of about $2 million to $3 million per year.

Officials would also need to offer in-person early voting periods — two weeks before general elections, one week before primary elections — ahead of presidential or state primaries, biennial general elections, and municipal elections held on those days. Cities and towns could opt in to offer early voting for municipal elections not held concurrently with a state election.

Voters with disabilities could request accommodations including electronic and accessible instructions and an electronic voter affidavit. Sen. Barry Finegold, who co-chairs the Election Laws Committee, said lawmakers continue to consider other online voting options but are “just not there yet.”

The bill would also require correctional facilities to help eligible incarcerated residents register to vote, apply for and return mail-in ballots, and understand their voting rights.

Bay Staters lose their right to vote while they are incarcerated for a felony offense, but they retain that right while detained ahead of a trial or for a misdemeanor.

“Every year, 7,000 to 9,000 residents are held on pre-trial or misdemeanor convictions. Many of them are never charged,” said Sen. Cynthia Creem, who filed the original version of the Senate’s bill. “These individuals maintain their voting rights, but face barriers to voting, including not being aware they have the right while they’re being held in prison.”

Some voting advocates said the proposal falls short on voting reforms for incarcerated residents, calling for additional action to end “de-facto jal-based disenfranchisement” such as directly providing ballots and applications.

“What we’re asking for is not complicated: all eligible voters must be handed ballot applications, provided all of the information needed to cast an informed vote, know their application or ballot won’t be caught in jail-mail delays, and then have the assurance that elections officials will not reject their ballot unduly,” said Kristina Mensik, campaigns director for the National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls. “If we don’t take these steps, we will continue to leave those overwhelmingly Black, Hispanic, and poor carved out of our elections.”

Twenty other states and the District of Columbia offer some form of same-day voter registration. The legislation Senate Democrats crafted would offer it not just on Election Day, which Secretary of State William Galvin proposed, but on every early voting days as well.

Under current law, voters must be registered at least 20 days before Election Day to cast a ballot.

“There are people who want to vote in the commonwealth of Massachusetts who, right now, don’t find it easy to do so,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of the Common Cause Massachusetts voting rights advocacy group. “Perhaps they work a second job, or they’re a single parent, or they live in a rural area. Reforms like expanded early voting, vote by mail, and especially same-day registration are finally going to make it that much easier.”

The secretary would need to enroll Massachusetts in the multi-state Electronic Registration Information Center by July 1, 2022 under the bill, which supporters say will help keep modernized voting rolls across the state.

Anyone looking to register and vote on the same day they cast a ballot would be asked to present official proof of residency and submit an oath that they are a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old, eligible to register, and will not vote elsewhere, according to a summary of the bill. Those who fail to provide suitable identification could cast a provisional ballot and would need to return with ID for their vote to count.

The state attorney general or district attorney with jurisdiction would investigate any credible allegations of illegal voter registration or voters casting multiple ballots.

“We still have audits in place. Those are going to be continued,” Finegold said. “I just think we have to push back when we hear about voter fraud because it just does not happen here in the commonwealth. We have an amazing group of city and town clerks. They do a great job, and I think people should feel very confident about the integrity of our elections.”

Senators have until 2 p.m. on Monday to file amendments to the bill.

Wednesday’s debate will come with about six weeks remaining in the lawmaking calendar before the Legislature breaks from formal sessions until January.

Some of the features Senate Democrats want to make permanent, such as no-excuse mail-in voting, have been in place for more than a year after being implemented during the pandemic to limit the need for in-person contact.

Massachusetts voters turned out at a record 76 percent rate with 3,657,972 votes cast in the Nov. 3 general election, many of which were cast by mail or during an early voting period. In several municipal contests this month, though, turnout was low. Unofficial results counted 108,181 votes cast in Boston’s preliminary mayoral election, fewer than the 113,319 cast in 2013, the last time the city had a preliminary election for an open mayoral seat.

Finegold said 42 percent of Massachusetts general election voters in 2020 voted by mail and another 23 percent cast ballots during early voting periods.

“Clearly, these new systems were used, and I’m glad that the Legislature has temporarily extended these popular early voting and mail-in voting options, but it’s now time to enact permanent election reforms,” he said.

After allowing those measures to lapse briefly this summer, lawmakers extended them again until Dec. 15.

Spilka said she hopes to get a final bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk before that deadline.

House leaders have not indicated if they also plan to take up an elections reform bill this fall. The House in June approved a supplemental budget amendment making mail-in voting and early voting before biennial elections permanent, but that bill later became the vehicle for the temporary extension.

A Mariano spokesperson did not say if he intends to bring forward a new bill before the existing provisions expire in mid-December.

“The House is already on record supporting permanent mail in voting, having passed it earlier this year,” spokesperson Whitney Ferguson said in a statement. “We look forward to reviewing the full details of the Senate’s proposal upon passage.”

Baker has praised the benefits of mail-in voting and signed the laws implementing and extending pandemic-era options, but he opposes same-day voter registration. In a radio interview this month, the Republican governor said “the complexity” of the practice would add too much work for elections officials.

“We have lots and lots of opportunities for people to register right up until Election Day and a lot of processes that are pretty easy to use to get there,” Baker said. “But I want municipalities and the commonwealth on Election Day to focus on one thing and one thing only, which is counting the votes.”

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr did not respond to a request for comment.

Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, criticized the bill, saying that same-day voter registration and permanent mail-in voting “would be bad for Massachusetts and are being considered purely for partisan reasons.”

“Anytime election law is changed, it should be done so with buy-in from both parties and many ideological voices. Unfortunately, today’s announcement looks more like posturing for Democratic Primary elections,” Craney said. “Lawmakers should not be pursuing policy to better their chances with insider primaries. Election integrity should not be compromised in order to help one or two politician’s political aspirations.”

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