SECRETARY OF THE COMMONWEALTH William Galvin on Wednesday released his proposal for expanding early and mail-in voting for the fall elections, even as influential lawmakers released a competing – and different – plan.
While no one knows what the coronavirus outbreak will look like by fall, it is likely that the virus will be present in some way, and precautions that discourage large gatherings will continue. Policymakers and advocates agree that early voting and mail-in voting must be expanded before the fall elections, but disagreements must still be ironed out about what the system will look like.
“The baseline is the same in the sense that I think all involved…want to ensure that everyone who wants to cast an absentee ballot in the fall are not blocked from doing so by our absentee laws,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
Common Cause is backing a bill filed by Rep. John Lawn, a Watertown Democrat who co-chairs the Election Laws Committee, along with Rep. Michael Moran, a Boston Democrat, Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, and Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat.
The biggest changes being proposed in both plans are around absentee, or mail-in, ballots. The state constitution only allows absentee voting if someone cannot get to the polls due to a disability, a religious belief, or out-of-town travel.
A new law passed to facilitate a handful of special legislative elections in May and June expands the definition of “physical disability” to include anyone who is ill, quarantined, part of a vulnerable population or taking precautions due to COVID-19. Essentially, that means anyone who wants to vote by mail due to COVID-19 can.
The proposals for the fall elections offer different methods for voting by mail. Galvin wants to let anyone request an early voting ballot by mail for any reason any time after the ballots are available, in both September and November.
Under Galvin’s proposal, applications for a mail-in ballot could be requested online or using a paper form. They could be returned by mail, in-person by the voter or a family member or put in an official drop-box. Anyone who is hospitalized or forced to self-quarantine within a week of the election would be allowed to designate someone to hand-deliver a ballot to them.
“We assume many voters will opt to vote by mail if they wish to, and this gives them an option,” Galvin said. “They can vote by mail, they can vote on a different day or vote on Election Day.”
Lawn’s bill would let all voters request an absentee ballot by mail in the September primary. For the November election, all voters would be automatically mailed a ballot. There would still be on-site voting at the polls in case anyone wants to vote in person.
“I believe that we need to provide voters with as many options as possible to vote safely in both the primary and general elections,” Lawn said.
Lawn said past presidential elections have seen turnouts of 75 to 80 percent, and there is only a single ballot for the general election as opposed to in the party primaries, so automatically sending out ballots should be possible.
Galvin said he would oppose mailing out ballots to every voter. “Mails are not reliable for sending out something like a ballot when it’s not requested,” Galvin said. “Addresses change, people move, it undercuts the integrity of the electoral process.” Galvin said his office tracks every ballot it mails out, which would be impossible if a ballot is not requested and the address may be wrong.
“The real effort should be to make it as easy as possible for a voter to request a ballot and get it addressed to them at the address they indicate,” Galvin said.
But Hinds said in a statement that he worries about “efforts to unduly shift the burden onto voters” during the pandemic, which is why he favors automatically sending out ballots.
Wilmot, whose group supports sending out universal ballots, said she worries that state and local officials will not be able to keep up with demand to send out the ballots if 60 or 70 percent of voters request mail-in ballots, instead of the current absentee voting rate of 3 to 5 percent. She added that now, absentee ballots must be delivered to each voter’s polling place and fed into the machine on Election Day, which may not be possible if so many more voters are casting ballots by mail.
Lawn’s bill would let local election officials scan mail-in ballots before Election Day, although results could not be tallied or announced until the polls closed.
Galvin, asked if clerks could handle an influx of mail-in ballots, said those types of questions are administrative issues, which he will work with city and town clerks to address once the Legislature passes a bill setting up a framework for the elections. “One reason we want to see the Legislature take prompt action is to… give us time to work through the administrative issues safely,” Galvin said.
Both proposals would also expand early voting. Under current law, early voting occurs during the 12-day period before any statewide general election, but there is no early voting in primaries.
Galvin wants 18 days of early voting, including two weekends, before the general election. He would add seven days of early voting, including one weekend, before the primary. This would let people who want to vote in person spread their voting over more days to alleviate Election Day crowds.
Lawn’s bill would allow two weeks of early voting in September and three weeks in November.
The Election Laws Committee plans to hold a virtual public hearing on several election-related bills next Thursday. Lawn said he had not yet reviewed Galvin’s proposal, but the committee will consider all possibilities. “It’s important to go through each option and make sure we come up with a solid plan to make sure we have safe and secure elections this fall,” Lawn said.
Galvin said he needs the Legislature to pass a bill by early June at the latest so he can have the ballots printed and ready to be distributed.
The Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University this week released a report looking at various options for voting this fall. It argued that there are trade-offs between the two approaches. Automatically sending out ballots would be easiest for voters and could increase participation. But some ballots would be sent to incorrect addresses, and the system would be less secure. With either option, the center said the state will have to work out logistical challenges, from avoiding municipal bottlenecks in sending out ballots to scaling up an online tracking system for absentee ballots to developing a timely way for counting mail-in ballots.
The cost of implementing a system largely based on vote-by-mail could cost anywhere from $12 million to $30 million, the report estimates. Some of the cost could be reimbursed by the federal government.