MassGOP challenges vote-by-mail law

Case turns on wording of Constitution; Galvin calls suit ‘baseless’

PERMANENT MAIL-IN voting is now the law in Massachusetts – unless Republican Party chair Jim Lyons has his way.

The conservative GOP chair filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday challenging voting by mail as unconstitutional, a day after Gov. Charlie Baker bucked many in his party by signing voting-by-mail into law.

“There’s a reason why we have three branches of government, and we’re confident that the Supreme Judicial Court will strike down and expose the Democrats’ unconstitutional permanent expansion of mail-in voting,” Lyons said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of Republicans – Lyons, Secretary of the Commonwealth candidate Rayla Campbell, congressional candidate Robert May, Republican State Committee member Evelyn Curley, and Raymond Xie, who is described as a ballot committee member.

Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, a Democrat, in an interview called the suit “baseless,” “without merit,” and “really outrageous.” Galvin said there have been no procedural issues or issues related to accuracy with mail-in voting so far. “Vote-by-mail has been a great success,” he said.

Galvin said the lawsuit “is a philosophical objection to allowing people to vote.”

The suit, filed by Lynnfield attorney Michael Walsh, reads as much like a policy paper as a lawsuit, delving into the history of electoral laws and constitutional changes related to the vote in Massachusetts. In a preamble, the lawsuit portrays mail-in voting, which was instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic, as an “unusual and uncomfortable compromise” during the state of emergency and argues that “the ending of the emergency compels the return to normalcy.”

The core of the legal complaint is a constitutional issue that experts have speculated for months is likely to be litigated should permanent voting by mail become law. The Massachusetts Constitution lays out specific circumstances under which a person can vote absentee: if the voter is out of town on Election Day, or if they have a physical disability or religious belief that prevents them from voting on Election Day. The lawsuit argues that by setting out specific circumstances under which someone can vote absentee, the Constitution negates the ability of the Legislature to allow general no-excuse mail-in voting.

During the pandemic, the lawsuit says, there could be an argument that every voter had a physical disability. Now, according to the lawsuit, “special dispensations under emergency powers cannot simply be put in place without regard for the existing frame of government.”

Proponents of mail-in voting have argued that mail-in voting is a form of early voting, which is legally distinct from absentee voting.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The lawsuit also argues that early voting is unconstitutional because the Constitution sets out a specific election date and timelines for other electoral procedures, like the submission of signatures for initiative petitions, all of which are affected by early voting. (Early voting has existed in Massachusetts since 2016.) It challenges provisions allowing electronic voting through the internet for people with disabilities and overseas military voters, arguing that it makes voting less secure. It also raises concerns about myriad other details of the new law related to residency requirements, the use of check-in and check-out stations, a ban on electioneering near early polling stations, and other provisions.

A motion for a temporary restraining order that accompanies the lawsuit puts the arguments in more traditional legal language and asks a judge to stop the new law from going into effect for the 2022 elections.

Mail-in voting is scheduled to go into effect for the September state primary. Under the new law, Galvin is required to mail out applications for ballots as soon as July. If the MassGOP is successful in obtaining a restraining order, that could upset the tight election schedule. Galvin said he thinks it is unlikely that the suit will be successful, but said he is “anxious to get it resolved.”