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The state's top elections official is moving forward with sending out vote-by-mail ballot applications after the governor's office agreed to advance funds included in a COVID-19 supplemental budget that is nearing final approval in the Legislature.
Both branches still need to take their final votes on the bill before sending the appropriations bill to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk, but a spokesperson for Secretary of State William Galvin's office confirmed to State House News Service Tuesday that the administration provided funds and the secretary's office spent them. The provision of the funds appears to have ended a week-long dispute over whether the secretary's office could use federal funds through the CARES Act to cover postage costs associated with the massive mailing.
"The mailing is in process now," the spokesperson said when asked about when the applications would go out.
Election reform advocates filed a lawsuit Monday in an attempt to force the secretary of state to comply with a July 15 deadline to send applications for mail-in primary ballots outlined in a new state law. Galvin previously said he could not send out the applications until the Legislature provided funding for postage and advocates pointed to nearly $8.2 million in CARES Act funding set aside for COVID-19 election-related costs.
A Supreme Judicial Court hearing for the lawsuit was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon but was postponed to Friday "at the request of the petitioner," according to a spokesperson for the court.
"Our litigation has prompted action and we are hoping the mailing will go out before the hearing," MassVOTE Executive Director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford said in a statement to the News Service.
A $1.14 billion COVID-19 supplemental budget pending in the Legislature includes $5 million to address the pandemic's impact on elections. The Senate approved a House amendment to the bill Monday evening and the branches have an opportunity to send the bill to Baker's desk over the next two days.
The federal Election Assistance Commission also clarified Tuesday that using CARES Act funds to cover the increased cost of sending out vote-by-mail applications to every voter as a part of a larger COVID-19 response is permissible under federal guidelines.
Responding to a July 9 letter from U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, Acting Executive Director Mona Harrington said postal costs to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the COVID-19 impact on the 2020 federal election cycle "are an allowable expense under the CARES Act funding" and can be applied to both federal primaries and the general election.
"CARES Act funds can be used to cover all increased costs for mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, including postage. In the event postage costs have not been covered by HAVA funds in the past, the activity could be considered responsive to the pandemic and the associated costs covered by CARES Act grants," the letter read. "An example of an increased cost would be a state passing a law requiring a vote-by-mail application be mailed to every voter as part of a larger coronavirus response."
The Galvin spokesperson said the state's director of elections spoke with EAC Tuesday regarding the funding issue "and they did concede that the information on their website regarding CARES Act funding was inconsistent."
"As Secretary Galvin has said, we will be prioritizing the CARES Act funding to pay for the postage for ballots for the primary and election, the printing of the ballot envelopes, the equipment for local election officials to count these ballots, and personal protective equipment for our election workers," the spokesperson said.
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