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Report: Many Communities Not Fully Prepared For Early Voting

Massachusetts' early voting law takes effect for the first time this November. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)closemore
Massachusetts' early voting law takes effect for the first time this November. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts cities and towns still have a lot of work ahead of them to be ready for one of the biggest changes in state election law in decades.

That's the preliminary finding of a new report Thursday that looks are how prepared local cities and towns are to serve voters who want to cast ballots as early as 11 business days before Election Day.

The change was mandated by a 2014 early voting law that takes effect for the first time in November. Massachusetts is set to join 36 other states that provide for some form of early voting.

According to the survey, 40 percent of Massachusetts communities are in the final planning stages of preparing for the new system, while 35 percent have started planning, and 13 percent have no plans yet at all.

A coalition including Common Cause Massachusetts, MASSPIRG, and the League of Women Voters conducted the phone survey. About 12 percent of Massachusetts communities could not be reached. The data is preliminary and subject to change.

Advocates say that while there's work left to do, the findings show that most cities and towns are readying for the change.

"If communities have enough hours and locations, early voting promises to shorten long lines at busy polling places, improve the voting experience, and give Massachusetts citizens more opportunities to participate in democracy," Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said Thursday in a statement accompanying the report.

The survey obtained information from 313 of the 351 cities and towns in the state in June and July and found that 138 municipalities had already made final or nearly final plans, 126 had tentative plans, and 49 had not yet started planning for early voting.

Up to 175 municipalities plan to offer extended evening hours and 83 municipalities plan to offer weekend hours, according to the report.

In 2014, Massachusetts lawmakers passed - and former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick signed - an election reform law requiring early voting every two years for the November election. The early voting period this year begins Oct. 24 and ends Nov. 4. Election Day is Nov. 8.

While the law requires each municipality to have one voting location operating during businesses hours, early voting advocates have pressed communities to go further by opening at least one early voting site for every 35,000 people in a community and providing evening and weekend hours for voting.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the state's largest city plans to open nine early voting sites, one in each city council district, with weekend and evening hours. Walsh said he's committed $670,000 to ensure the success of the program.

Funding to help pay for the early voting law was at the center of a dispute between Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Democratic leaders in the Massachusetts House and Senate. Baker vetoed $1.2 million in early voting funding as part of an effort to rein in state spending at a time of tightening tax revenues. The Legislature overrode the veto and restored the money.

Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg defended the override saying, "Early voting encourages civic participation by making it more convenient to vote."

The 2014 law applies to all state elections, excluding primaries, and also provides for early voting by mail.

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