A PARTISAN BATTLE is brewing in the Legislature over vote-by-mail – with the first salvo coming on a seemingly innocuous bill to extend municipal voting by mail for another three months.

Since the state let citizens vote by mail for any reason in the 2020 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates have been calling to make vote-by-mail permanent.

Last month, House Speaker Ron Mariano announced that the House will authorize voting by mail for municipal elections through June as lawmakers work on a bill to make it permanent. “Since we first enacted vote by mail, it has proven to be secure and even increased voter turnout in many places,” Mariano said. “The House looks forward to making vote by mail a permanent way for residents to exercise their right to vote during and beyond the pandemic.”

Within days, Republicans who had served on the Election Laws Committee – Sen. Ryan Fattman of Webster, Rep. Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, Rep. Marc Lombardo of Billerica, and Rep. Nicholas Boldyga of Southwick – wrote a letter to Mariano calling on lawmakers to seek more information from Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin on how the 2020 elections went. They reiterated a series of questions – which they previously asked Galvin, who had not responded – about how many ballots were returned as undeliverable and whether those voters ultimately voted, whether voters’ signatures on ballots were matched to their signatures on records, and the financial costs of voting by mail. (Galvin also supports extending vote-by-mail permanently.)

“It is important that lawmakers have this important information after the elections to analyze how we can identify the program’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats,” the Republican lawmakers wrote.

The State House News Service on Thursday flagged the fact that the House approved a bill to extend municipal voting by mail through June 2021 – along with several other bills – with no public hearing. The conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance criticized the House’s decision to move the bill through a lightly attended informal session.

“Informal sessions are becoming an avenue for controversial policies to be passed without a legislative vote or oversight and yesterday’s passage of an extension of mail in voting is further proof of that new trend,” said Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance spokesperson Paul Craney.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee then announced that it would be accepting public testimony on the bill.

According to a State House News Service transcript, Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr, during a Senate session Thursday, called it “unfortunate” that the bill came to the Senate with no public hearing. “Absent the ability to receive public input, it would not be appropriate for this measure to come before this body,” Tarr said.

Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons praised Tarr and Fattman for ensuring the bill had a public hearing – and criticized House Republican Leader Brad Jones for not calling for a hearing in the House. Lyons said Jones was “complicit” with House Democrats as “they effectively worked to keep this controversial piece of legislation away from the public.”

Senate Ways and Means chair Michael Rodrigues noted that the bill currently before lawmakers is limited – extending municipal voting by mail, which has been allowed for most of the past year, from March through June. But Rodrigues acknowledged, according to the News Service, that there will be a broader debate when lawmakers seek to make the changes permanent. “Please rest assured that everyone will have all the opportunity to participate openly in the debate on whether or not to make these changes long-term, post-pandemic,” Rodrigues said.