BOSTON (SHNS) – A fast-tracked push to extend mail-in voting and early in-person voting for springtime elections in Massachusetts, and extend flexibility for cities and towns to re-schedule municipal elections, is taking a short breather so the public can weigh in.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said during Thursday’s Senate session that his committee would accept written testimony on the bill (H 73) until 10 a.m. Monday, an hour before the Senate gavels into its next session. Rodrigues made his announcement during a point of personal privilege while dialed into the session remotely.
The bill would extend COVID-19 vote-by-mail provisions currently slated to expire at the end of March for three additional months, allowing voters to cast ballots early by mail for any municipal or state elections held through June 30. Municipal officials would also be able to authorize early in-person voting for annual or special municipal elections held on or by June 30.
Provisions of last spring’s COVID-19 municipal governance law would also be revived, giving cities and towns the flexibility to postpone municipal elections or caucuses that had been scheduled up to June 30 until a date not later than Aug. 1. Town officials could also cancel a municipal caucus scheduled to occur by July 31 if COVID-19 is deemed an overriding threat.
The legislation was sent a week ago to the House Ways and Means Committee, which reported a new draft Monday that got the House’s stamp of approval during an informal session where debate on legislation is not allowed. Joint House-Senate committees usually hold hearings on bills before they hit the floor so that the public and legislators can communicate support, disapproval, or suggestions.
Four Republicans — Sen. Ryan Fattman and Reps. Marc Lombardo, Shawn Dooley, and Nicholas Boldyga — wrote to House Speaker Ronald Mariano on Tuesday saying that any extension of voting-by-mail should be prefaced by public testimony and receipt of data from officials like the secretary of state.
Action could have come in the Senate as early as Thursday. Fattman was one of three senators physically present for the session in the Senate chamber, which convened nearly an hour late.
“I think our goal was to get some sort of public input process. Mission accomplished,” Fattman told the News Service after Rodrigues announced he was opening a window for public testimony.
“Our concern was that it seemed to be moving a little bit quickly without really knowing what we were trying to achieve,” the Sutton Republican said, citing compliance costs as his chief concern. “I think most people say, OK, if a municipality needs to move their election because they’re concerned, we respect that. But there’s a lot of towns that I represent, and many across the commonwealth, that are fearful that they may have to pay for a lot of this.”
Rodrigues said during the session that Fattman “raises some good points about long-term considerations on whether or not we should make these election vote-by-mail or early voting opportunities available long-term, post-pandemic. And we will have full, open debate and discussion on those issues.”
But for the moment, the Westport Democrat emphasized that the pending bill is a short-term extension. “We do completely understand that this piece of legislation is time-sensitive, as local communities are — as we speak — engaging in the planning of their local municipal elections,” Rodrigues said.
The chairman said the language is identical to an outside section that the Senate tacked onto its version of the fiscal 2021 spending bill, which was ultimately tossed out in budget negotiations with the House.
The House got a gentle knock on the Senate floor, with Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr saying it was “unfortunate” the bill arrived in the upper chamber without first going through the hearing process.
The House got a more forceful knock from the state Republican Party, which issued a statement Thursday afternoon calling House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a co-sponsor of the bill, “complicit with House Democrats in the scheme to shield the proposal from the public.”
“We agree with Sen. Tarr’s comment that this should have been subject to a public hearing, and he and Sen. Fattman are doing exactly what Republicans should be doing: standing up for the voters. We’re proud of Senators Tarr and Fattman for doing their jobs, and we hope House Republican leadership is taking notice,” said MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons, who formerly served under Jones in the House.
Senate Ways and Means asks that all testimony be sent to legislative director Jeremy Spittle (Jeremy.Spittle@masenate.gov).