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Vote By Mail: Why Mass. Dems Want To Make The Pandemic Measure Permanent05:24
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Secretary William Galvin. (Sam Doran/SHNS)
Secretary William Galvin. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

Gov. Charlie Baker this week signed a bill to extend rules expanding mail-in voting until the end of June. Now many Beacon Hill Democrats want to make them permanent, despite resistance from some Republicans.

Proponents point out that tens of millions of voters across the country took advantage of measures enacted during the pandemic to vote by mail, helping to drive record turnout in last November's election.

Among the biggest advocates of vote-by-mail in Massachusetts is Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat.

"Because it allows the voting to be done at the convenience of the voter, it extends to voters more time, [and] more reason,"  Galvin told WBUR. "It will, in effect, add people to the discussion, which is a very important thing."

Starting last July, Massachusetts gave voters the right to vote by mail for any reason. The new law signed by Baker on Tuesday extends that measure to the end of June, which will allow voters to mail in their ballots in a number of upcoming local elections. It will also give lawmakers time to craft new legislation to make the practice permanent.

Galvin has authored one of several bills being considered by Beacon Hill lawmakers to permanently let anyone vote by mail.

"In effect, it's no excuse absentee voting," Galvin said.

But many other states — particularly ones controlled by Republicans — are moving in the opposite direction. Myrna Perez, who directs the Voting Rights and Election Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote.

"On the other hand, we are seeing some states like Massachusetts introduce a slew of bills that would make it easier for people to vote," Perez said. "This demonstrates that we do have two Americas."

In a country now defined by political polarization, vote-by-mail has become one of the hottest flash-points, thanks in no small part to former President Donald Trump.

"You have a Republican president, for reasons that still mystify me and a lot of people, [who has waged] a relentless attack on voting by mail," said Charles Stewart III, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies election data. "And, you know, voters listen to their partisan leaders."

Indeed, Trump is still pushing baseless claims of election fraud — and attacking vote-by-mail.

"This election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and other courts didn't want to do anything about it," Trump said last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, before adding:  "We should eliminate the insanity and very corrupt mail-in-voting."

But Stewart argues that there's no particular reason for Republicans to oppose vote-by-mail.

"I like to remind people that before this election, absentee ballots were considered to be a Republican mode of voting," he said.

Stewart pointed out that during the disputed 2000 presidential election, it was a Republican, George W. Bush, who benefited the most from mailed-in absentee ballots in Florida. Now many Republicans oppose expanding vote-by-mail.

Here in Massachusetts, when the House voted to extend access to mail-in-voting, Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons blasted the move as "a complete and total disgrace," accusing lawmakers of ramming through controversial legislation without hearings or debate.

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Paul Craney, executive director of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance largely agrees with Lyons' that assessment.

"It passed...without a single hearing, without a single vote in the House," said Craney, who wanted lawmakers to first study how mail-in voting worked in the last election before making it permanent. "The Senate did a quick written testimony period that lasted one weekend. People are a little bothered by that."

Among the questions Craney and Republican lawmakers wanted answers to: How much did vote-by-mail cost? How many vote-by-mail applications sent to households were returned by the U.S. Postal Service?  How did election clerks secure the completed applications and ballots?

Galvin says he's not surprised Republicans are skeptical of vote-by-mail —  because he believes it helps Democrats.

"It's generally empowered people of color, minority voters," he said. "It's generally empowered urban voters. It's generally empowered younger voters. Those are general statements that I don't have statistical evidence for right at this moment. I believe they're accurate."

State records confirm that after Massachusetts approved vote-by-mail, more people voted in the state than ever before. In the Nov. 3 election, 3.65 million people voted statewide, nearly 42% by mail.  The overwhelming majority of ballots cast by mail — 84% —  came from Democrats, according to exit polls.

So, does that mean vote-by-mail gives Democrats an advantage?

"You can torture the data until it screams" trying to understand which party benefits, said Stewart, the M.I.T. professor, who has studied years of elections involving mail-in ballots.

"There's no evidence that mail voting helps or hurts either party intrinsically," he said. "None."

Stewart's assessment is backed up by a new study from Stanford University, which concluded that vote-by-mail "did not substantially increase Democratic turn-out relative to Republican turn-out."

Instead, the Stanford study found "voter interest" is what drove higher turn-out in 2020 —  not changes to voting rules.

Advocates say this supports their argument for making vote-by-mail permanent: it's not about partisan advantage; it's about making voting easier —  for everyone.

This segment aired on March 19, 2021.

Related:

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

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