Galvin backs permanent mail-in voting

Bill would allow same-day voter registration

CITING THE SUCCESS of mail-in voting during the pandemic, Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin on Tuesday released a bill that would make voting by mail a permanent feature of Massachusetts elections.

Galvin said vote-by-mail led to record turnout in the state primary and the presidential election, with prompt, reliable results. “Voters were very enthusiastic about it and used it,” Galvin said. “From an administrative point of view, we know now we can do it.”

Galvin announced his bill the same day Rep. John Lawn, a Watertown Democrat who chaired the Elections Committee last session, and Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat, filed their version of a vote-by-mail bill, championed by a coalition of voting rights advocates. Both bills would also allow same-day voter registration.

The advocates would go farther than Galvin in several areas, including increasing the window when someone can register to vote before an election, making it easier for incarcerated people to vote, and requiring Massachusetts to join a multi-state voter information system.

Lawn said lawmakers were forced last year to change election practices due to the pandemic, and the result was an election that went off with “very few hiccups.” Lawn said the changes worked. “I think this is an important step for us to take to make sure we increase participation and people have the ability to vote safely and securely in our elections,” he said.

Creem said she is “thrilled” Galvin is proposing a similar bill, and if her bill goes farther, “I’d like to have an opportunity to convince him something more is important.”

The two major features of both bills are allowing residents to vote by mail for any reason, and allowing same-day voter registration.

The election modernization coalition, a group consisting of Common Cause Massachusetts, MassVOTE, MASSPIRG, the League of Women Voters ,and others, was pushing for same-day voter registration before COVID-19 broke out. That effort was shelved as lawmakers scrambled to figure out how to conduct the presidential election during a pandemic.

For the 2020 election, the Legislature passed temporary rules allowing anyone to vote by mail. But the rules were only instituted for 2020, although lawmakers have since authorized voting by mail for municipal elections through March. Voter turnout in the presidential election was a record-breaking 76 percent, with 3.6 million ballots cast and 41.7 percent of those cast by mail. Turnout in the state primary was the highest in 30 years.

Given the constraints of the pandemic and the quick implementation – the bill establishing mail-in voting was signed in July before the September primary – Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG, said mail-in voting was remarkably successful. “The odds would have had it being a disaster and it was the opposite. It was a complete miracle of how well it worked, how many people used it,” Domenitz said.

The advocates say that success is a reason to make mail-in voting permanent. “This was a system that really helped us not just expand democracy during a public health crisis but that we see as being important to expand democracy moving forward,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

The advocates say 21 states already have same-day voter registration, and there is no reason for Massachusetts to lag. Galvin has been calling for the institution of same-day voter registration at least since 2018.

One issue during the run-up to mail-in voting was the enormous burden it placed on city and town clerks. Similar issues have been raised in the past regarding same-day voter registration.

Galvin said he introduced his bill after consulting with clerks. One difference, for example, between his bill and the coalition’s bill is Galvin would restore the requirement that someone register to vote 20 days before an election, although he would then let people register on Election Day. The advocates want to maintain a shorter 10-day window, as was done in 2020. Galvin said clerks complained that the shorter voter registration window made it hard to get an accurate voter list quickly enough, since by the time the registration window was over, early voting was starting.

Both bills incorporate other voting-related provisions. Galvin’s bill would set the date of the state primary for the first Tuesday in September, rather than the second Tuesday, with provisions for moving it by up to seven days if it conflicts with a religious holiday. Galvin said lawmakers have had to move the date earlier every primary for the last decade to comply with federal deadlines regarding overseas ballots.

While lawmakers have floated the idea of having a summer primary, Galvin said for 2022, the election cannot be held before September because census numbers are expected to be released late, and new precincts need to be drawn using the adjusted census numbers.

Galvin’s bill would make permanent some flexibility around moving polling locations and sharing election officers between precincts, based on provisions instituted temporarily last year.

Lawn and Creem’s bill would make it easier for incarcerated people to vote, by requiring sheriffs to give eligible inmates mail-in ballot applications, provide a place for them to vote, and mailing their ballots for them. Anyone who is incarcerated but not convicted of a felony can vote in Massachusetts.

Their bill would also require more frequent post-election audits to ensure voting tabulation machines are accurate. It would require Massachusetts to join a national voter information system within six months. The system can help states clean up voter rolls by tracking when a voter moves.

Meet the Author

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.

“We don’t want there to be any room for people to question the integrity of elections in Massachusetts,” said MassVOTE spokesperson Alex Psilakis.

Galvin’s bill and the Lawn/Creem bill are only two of what will likely be several proposals considered by the Legislature. Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, also filed her own proposal to make mail-in voting permanent. Her bill would also establish local-option ranked choice voting, make Election Day a holiday, and move the state primary to June.