Legislators Reach Accord To Revive Early, Mail-In Voting

A 2020 election mail ballot in Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A 2020 election mail ballot in Massachusetts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Voters in cities and towns with municipal elections this summer and fall, including Boston, would be able to cast their ballots by mail without an excuse or in person during early voting days under a compromise bill lawmakers filed Friday that also creates a new MBTA governing body.

After allowing pandemic-era election policies to lapse on June 30, House and Senate negotiators reached a deal on a fiscal 2021 spending bill that effectively revives and extends the voting provisions until Dec. 15.

The $261.1 million accord, which involves additional spending for the fiscal year that ended June 30, calls for $131 million to help stabilize the early education and care sector amid enrollment fluctuations and other COVID-created upheaval as well as $5 million to help launch a new police standards and training commission created in the December 2020 police reform law.

A six-person conference committee filed the proposed agreement on competing supplemental budgets (H 3871 / S 2845) with the House clerk's office Friday afternoon, 15 days after legislative leaders formed the panel.

The bill could be sent to Gov. Charlie Baker next week. Both branches plan to meet next on Monday.

In addition to voting reforms, the proposal would also convene a new MBTA board of directors to oversee the transit agency, which has been without its own dedicated governing body since the Legislature allowed the Fiscal and Management Control Board to expire at the end of June.

The permanent new panel would feature seven members who each serve four-year terms. The secretary of transportation would serve in an ex officio role, and one member would be selected by the MBTA Advisory Board, an independent group that represents the interests of the 176 cities and towns that help fund the T.

All five of the remaining members would be appointed by the governor, one of whom would need to be selected from a Massachusetts AFL-CIO shortlist.

MBTA board members would not be compensated for the position, but they could seek reimbursement for up to $6,000 in travel and other related expenses each year. That final provision reflects the House's original bill, scrapping a Senate push to pay each board member a $12,000 stipend.

The T's board would need to meet at least once a month and at least 12 times per year, another section in which the House's proposal prevailed over the Senate's suggestion to require at least 20 meetings per year.

When the FMCB expired, oversight of the MBTA reverted to the broader Department of Transportation Board of Directors that also focuses on highway, aeronautics and other rail infrastructure. That board has not met since June and is scheduled to convene next on July 26.

Lawmakers and Baker have touted the value of easier access to mail-in voting and expanded early voting, but in the face of escalating warnings from Secretary of State William Galvin and other advocates, legislative leaders failed to resolve competing House-Senate plans as the June 30 deadline approached and then passed.

The lapse forced local elections officials with contests this summer to switch back to pre-pandemic rules, under which voters can only cast absentee ballots by mail with a valid excuse.

In its version of the supplemental budget, the House voted to make mail-in voting and expanded early voting permanent but only in even-year state primaries, general elections and municipal elections that fall on the same day.

The solution that legislative negotiators reached flips the expired pandemic voting law temporarily back into effect with a new end date of Dec. 15, punting the long-term debate to another time.

Voters would once again be allowed to vote by mail widely in elections this summer as well as dozens of major local elections later in the year. Cities and towns would again be able to offer early voting starting no sooner than 10 days before an election, and they could also opt out of the mail-in voting process for local elections if they choose.

Many mayoral candidates in Boston's Sept. 14 preliminary election and Nov. 2 general election backed no-excuse mail-in voting and had called on Beacon Hill to make mail-in voting possible, as did Galvin, the state's chief elections official.

Lawmakers will still need to resolve long-term questions about the role of mail-in voting, which they could choose to do as part of a broader reform package that remains before the Election Laws Committee.

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Other changes such as allowing prospective voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day have drawn vocal support but have not yet gained momentum among legislative leaders.

Other spending highlights in the compromise supplemental budget include $27 million to make one-time relief payments to recipients of the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or TAFDC, program; $31.9 million for the secretary of health and human services's office; and $13 million to pay for National Guard activations.

Committee staff say its net cost to the state would be $64.1 million.

Matt Murphy and Sam Doran contributed reporting.



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