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Amid The Pandemic, Lawmakers Push Vote-By-Mail Law In Massachusetts03:56
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King County Election workers collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary on March 10 in Seattle. Washington is a vote by mail state. (John Froschauer/AP)
King County Election workers collect ballots from a drop box in the Washington State primary on March 10 in Seattle. Washington is a vote by mail state. (John Froschauer/AP)

Members of Massachusetts' Congressional delegation are calling on Beacon Hill lawmakers to pass a statewide vote-by-mail law, while urging Congress to fund efforts to expand voter access. The push follows the recent primary in Wisconsin — where tens of thousands of people were forced to choose between their right to vote and risking their health.

The effort is being led by Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who is calling for two reforms — one at the state level and one at the federal. He wants state lawmakers to pass a law that would provide mail-in-ballots to every registered voter in the state — for the September primary and November general election — and he wants the federal government to allocate $4 billion to help pay for similar reforms across the country. Kennedy says they are essential steps to protecting voting rights in the midst of the pandemic.

"Without putting forth the necessary reforms to ensure the confidence that every American voter should have — that their voice is going to be heard — could amount to the greatest widespread impact of voter suppression that our country has ever seen," Kennedy said.

Kennedy is running for the U.S. Senate — challenging Sen. Ed Markey, who also supports expanding vote-by-mail. Kennedy spoke recently at a tele-press conference, along with other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, including Rep. Jim McGovern, who says the recent primary in Wisconsin showed what can go wrong during a pandemic: voters forced to wait for hours in long lines that wrapped around city blocks.

"Those conditions didn't just endanger public health, they also led to widespread voter suppression," McGovern said. "In Milwaukee, which is a city about the size of Boston, the original 180 voting locations were reduced to five. That is just unconscionable. It's unacceptable."

Beacon Hill lawmakers have proposed several bills to establish vote-by-mail in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, President Trump has been pushing back. Speaking to Fox And Friends, Trump criticized proposals by Democrats in the coronavirus stimulus negotiations that would have provided hefty funding to expand absentee ballots and voting-by-mail.

"The things they had in there were crazy," Trump said. "They had things, levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

The president seemed to be suggesting that making it easier to vote hurts Republicans. Trump also suggests that voting by mail would increase voter fraud.

"Because a lot of people cheat with mail-in-voting," he said. "I think people should vote with voter ID."

Vote-by-mail has been up and running for years in several western states — even championed by some Republicans, and fraud is exceedingly rare. But it does make voting easier for lots of people, which, according to McGovern, is why President Trump opposes it.

"I think he's afraid he's going to lose," he said. "He basically said that if everybody voted by mail that would be the end of the Republican Party. Those are his words, not mine."

Advocates of voting rights generally support vote-by-mail. Among them is Danielle Root, associate director of voting rights at the Center for American Progress, who says that expanding vote-by-mail during the pandemic makes a lot of sense. But Root is concerned that a number of states are doing it, including New Jersey and Ohio, and then cutting back — even eliminating — in-person voting.

"The problem with eliminating all in-person options is that it has the potential to disenfranchise countless Americans," she said.

Root says those at risk of being disenfranchised include black voters, who tend to rely on vote-by-mail much less than any other racial or demographic group, and Native Americans, who often don't have access to reliable postal service. So as more states move to vote-by-mail during the pandemic, Root argues that they shouldn't do it at the expense of old fashion in-person voting.

This segment aired on April 21, 2020.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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