Mass. Lawmakers Consider Making Mail-In Voting Permanent, Other Election Changes

Voters fill the booths at the Boston Public Library. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Voters fill the booths at the Boston Public Library. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts lawmakers are weighing whether to take some of the voting changes adopted at the height of the pandemic, including the broad use of mail-in voting, and make them permanent.

The state took that step and others, including expanding the use of early voting and ballot drop boxes, to help diminish the pandemic health risk of voters crowding polling locations.

Many of those changes proved popular, leading to a push to write them into state law.

No-excuse voting by mail and local option early voting periods will remain in place through June. With the state of emergency set to end on June 15, lawmakers must decide which, if any, of those changes they want to support as lasting features to the state's electoral landscape.

Several proposals were before the Election Laws Committee for a Wednesday hearing, including a range of bills that would keep mail-in voting options in place, continue to offer early voting ahead of primary and general elections, and allow prospective voters to register the same day they cast a ballot.

Secretary of State William Galvin is among those pushing for permanent reforms through a bill he asked Election Laws Committee co-chair Sen. Barry Finegold to file (S 468).

Galvin told the committee that the proposal would make no-excuse voting by mail available in all elections, set a deadline to apply for a main-in ballot seven days before an election, allow any mailed ballot postmarked by Election Day to count if it is received within three days of the election, offer in-person early voting for seven days before a primary and 14 days before a general election, and authorize Election Day voter registration. Galvin said it builds on lessons learned during the pandemic.

"It is going to cost money, and it would be foolish to say 'it doesn't cost anything,' because it does, but it's well worth spending on, I believe. Our municipalities have found it effective, voters like it," said Galvin, a Democrat. "It's not a partisan thing. I have to point that out. We had many Republicans choose to vote by mail last year, and none of them had any problem voting by mail."

Auditor Suzanne Bump threw her support behind legislation (H 838 / S 489) that would create a permanent mechanism to pay the costs of early voting — whose price tag is millions of dollars — ahead of time rather than via reimbursements to municipalities.

Bump told the committee that her office expects to certify nearly $3 million in spending on early voting for 2020 elections, "nearly the amount appropriated by the Legislature for this purpose."

"I caution, however, against reliance upon this figure for future appropriations, since funding for the 2020 elections came also from the federal CARES Act, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and the Center for Tech and Civic Life," Bump wrote in testimony. "If not for these external financial resources, which probably will not exist for future elections, the final cost certification for early voting would have been significantly higher and would have far exceeded the legislative appropriation."

Another bill filed by Rep. John Lawn, who co-chaired the Election Laws Committee last session, and Sen. Cynthia Creem would implement many of the same reforms that Galvin sought. Their bill would allow same-day registration during early voting periods, while Galvin's proposed only on Election Day.

A large group of advocacy groups in the Election Modernization Coalition voiced their support for the Lawn-Creem bill (H 805 / S 459) Wednesday, arguing that the significant jump in voter turnout in 2020 demonstrates the benefits of expanding access to ballots.

More than 1.5 million Massachusetts voters submitted ballots by mail in 2020, and another 844,000 voted in-person ahead of Election Day, according to Galvin's office — together representing nearly 65 percent of all Bay State votes cast in November's general election.

Massachusetts Voter Table Director Beth Huang told lawmakers that the Lawn-Creem legislation would "lead to more successful and more equitable elections."

Twenty other states and the District of Columbia have same-day voter registration laws in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Beacon Hill lawmakers have debated the topic for years and the Senate approved it in 2014 but House leaders declined to go along with the reform that year.

Noting that the state's top elections official supports the provision, Creem said Wednesday that she believes "the stars are aligned" to enact same-day registration.

No one spoke in opposition to the pandemic-era policies over the first two-plus hours of Wednesday's hearing. In a statement, the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance said it believes in-person voting should return as the norm because of the group's concerns about mail not being delivered.

"In only a matter of days, Massachusetts will have virtually no pandemic related restrictions left," said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the group. "All of the New England states are now moving toward this shared goal. Voters should get used to daily life returning to normal and that includes in person voting by next year's elections."

With reporting by the Associated Press and State House News Service's Chris Lisinski.



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