A prominent civil rights group in Boston on Monday filed a lawsuit against the state of Massachusetts, arguing its current timeline for the distribution of vote-by-mail ballots is slated to fail to meet deadlines set under the state's new emergency elections law.
Lawyers for Civil Rights and law firm Ropes & Gray LLP brought their petition before the state's Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of two voting rights advocacy groups — Common Cause Massachusetts and MassVOTE — as well as seven Black, Latinx and Asian American Massachusetts voters. The civil rights group said in a release that many of the voters represented in the suit do not have easy access to computers and have underlying health conditions that make them fearful of casting ballots in-person amid the ongoing pandemic.
The coronavirus crisis prompted the state Legislature to pass a compromise emergency voting bill ahead of this year's elections that mandates vote-by-mail ballot applications must be received by all 4.5 million of the state's registered voters by July 15. Gov. Charlie Baker signed it into law a week ago, on July 6.
A day later, Secretary of State Bill Galvin said that while his office was working to mail out the applications, it would fail to meet the deadline due to insufficient funds to cover mailing costs. The Senate previously estimated the cost at about $8 million. The lawsuit is challenging Galvin's claim, arguing the state must not fail to comply with the election law.
Under the new law, mail-in ballots, early voting and in-person voting are options for voters for the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general election.
“Secretary Galvin’s claim that he does not have money and is waiting on the Legislature to send funding for mail ballot applications is bizarre at best,” Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said in the release. “Failing to send an application, as required by law, unravels a core concept of the legislation unanimously approved by the legislature — allowing voters easy access to mail voting. This will increase risks to the health of voters and elections officials alike.”
In its statement, Lawyers for Civil Rights argued that Galvin's office could pay for the postage for the ballot applications through the money Massachusetts received through the federal CARES Act. Galvin has said he can use that money to mail physical ballots but not applications.
“An emergency lawsuit is the only available option to protect the health of voters, poll workers, and our democracy. It is clear that Secretary Galvin has not taken the steps required to mail applications to voters, as state law demands," Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in the release. "We hope to resolve this quickly because delay comes at the expense of those in our communities who are most vulnerable, particularly those historically disenfranchised who need safe ballot access the most."
With reporting from WBUR's Lisa Creamer and State House News Service's Chris Lisinski