Galvin backs early voting by mail for fall elections
Logistics a concern with many proposals on table
THE STATE’S TOP ELECTIONS OFFICIAL is backing expanded voting by mail for this year’s elections, due to the uncertainty around the coronavirus’s trajectory. But what that process could look like is up in the air, with multiple legislative proposals, some of which Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin says are unworkable.
“The problem with the advocates is they don’t really understand what they’re talking about – you have to make the logistics all work,” Galvin said in an interview. “We share the same goal, which is give people the option of not having to vote in person. We have to make sure the pieces work.”
Massachusetts will hold its state primary election on Sept. 1 and the general election – which includes the presidential election – Nov. 3. But what society will look like by then, and whether it will be safe to gather at a polling place, remains anyone’s guess, given the uncertain trajectory of the coronavirus. Accordingly, advocates and lawmakers are looking into ways to expand the ability of voters to cast their ballots without showing up in person.
Under the Massachusetts Constitution, voters may only vote absentee if they cannot get to the polls due to narrow circumstances: a disability, a religious belief, or if they are out of town.
While the requirements for absentee balloting are constitutional, Massachusetts also has early voting, which was created by state law. Currently, early voting is available for statewide general elections (although not for primaries) 10 days before the election. But early voting still requires an in-person visit to the polls.
Some lawmakers and advocates are now looking for ways to create an early voting-by-mail system.
The most ambitious proposal is a bill sponsored by Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, and Rep. Adrian Madaro, a Boston Democrat. Their bill would require state officials to proactively mail ballots to every registered voter. For the primary, unenrolled voters, who can vote in any party’s primary, would have to request a ballot for a particular party.
US Rep. Joe Kennedy, a Democrat running for US Senate, has urged lawmakers to pass a vote-by-mail initiative that would send a ballot to every registered voter. In a letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, Kennedy invoked the debacle of Wisconsin’s April 7 presidential primary, when last-ditch efforts to postpone it were rejected by the courts, so voters had to stand in lines to cast their ballots in the middle of the pandemic. “In the age of coronavirus, no one should be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Kennedy wrote.
A different approach, championed by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat, would let any voter request an early ballot by mail.
Rausch said she believes her approach is the best way to get ballots into the hands of as many voters as possible. “The whole point is to lift up and support voting and make voting as easy as possible, especially in this particular set of circumstances,” Rausch said. She worried that letting voters request ballots could overwhelm the system if not enough absentee ballots are printed to meet the demand or clerks cannot keep up with mailing them out.
But Creem said the opt-in approach is the simplest. She worried that sending ballots to everyone raises too many logistical concerns – such as how to make sure foreign language speakers get ballots in their own language, and how to make sure unenrolled voters get the correct primary ballots. “We can either get bogged down on ideas that are great and lofty but we don’t have consensus, or we can find things we think we can work through and actually do something,” Creem said.
Galvin, a Democrat, said he agrees that early voting by mail should be allowed for any reason, for both the primary and general election. He said it should be available even before the current 10-day window for early voting.
Galvin said mailing ballots out to everyone raises too many logistical hurdles – for example, knowing which ballot to send to unenrolled voters. While he would not speak to specific legislative proposals, he said he favors a system where any voter could request a mailed ballot.
Galvin said there are other logistical issues that would still have to be worked through – such as how clerks are expected to tally these ballots, and who will pay for postage to return the ballots.
Galvin said he needs to know by mid-June at the latest what kind of election system the state will adopt, since federal law requires him to have ballots for the September primary printed and mailed to overseas voters by July 18.
Galvin and most advocates still support having polls open on Election Day so voters have the option of voting in person. Even with the most comprehensive vote by mail system, there may be people who do not receive a ballot, do not send it back, or who prefer in-person voting. Galvin said work will be needed to ensure polling places are staffed, clean, and safe. Rausch’s bill would require that poll workers be given personal protective equipment.Common Cause Massachusetts, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and around 50 progressive and voting rights organizations recently wrote to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Karen Spilka, and other lawmakers urging them to adopt a range of election reforms. Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, said it is likely that by fall, a large percentage of the population will still feel threatened by the virus.
The reforms proposed include expanding the definition of “disability” for the September and November elections so people affected by COVID-19 can qualify for absentee ballots; considering the proposal to mail early ballots to all voters; extending past Election Day the deadline by which mail-in ballots can be counted; and appropriating state money for equipment and postage to mail and tabulate large numbers of mail-in ballots.