Galvin seeks emergency election powers

Wants flexibility to respond to coronavirus outbreak

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

WITH FOUR SPECIAL House and Senate elections planned for the end of the March and hundreds of municipal elections on the calendar in the next couple of months, the state’s top elections overseer plans to seek emergency powers from the Legislature to be able to respond to the evolving coronavirus outbreak.

The emergency authority being sought by Secretary of State William Galvin would include the power to postpone an election or move a polling location in the case of an emergency.

The secretary has had similar legislation filed every session since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but has updated the proposed bill to address circumstances that could arise from both natural disasters and terrorist attacks, as well as public health crises.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts as the number of COVID-19 cases more than doubled to 92 statewide. The governor ordered executive branch employees not to travel for work, and work agencies to avoid large meetings or attending conferences and seminars where large groups of people might gather.

The governor plans to revisit his emergency declaration in 30 days, which will be after thousands of voters from the South Shore to Westfield are expected to decide special election contests on March 31 for two House seats and two Senate seats. The town of Wellesley is also scheduled to hold its local elections next week, though most communities have town elections in April or May.

“The immediate concerns are the COVID-19 virus and implications on administration of elections, especially local municipal elections and town meetings,” the secretary’s legal counsel Michelle Tassinari wrote in a memo on Tuesday to Galvin.

Tassinari said that over the next two months there are over 150 municipal elections that could be affected. The secretary’s office, as of Tuesday, was seeking a sponsor for the legislation.

“The possible impacts include low voter turnout, insufficient poll workers and unavailability of polling places. These impacts could be a result of an actual outbreak in a particular area or a perceived threat of an outbreak,” Tassinari wrote.

The secretary’s office did not say that Galvin intends to alter any scheduled elections as this time, should the bill become law.

Galvin’s office, for now, is giving the same advice to town clerks as he did before Super Tuesday, including a reminder to make sure towns have enough poll workers in case some get sick, to wipe down voting booth surfaces and to encourage voters to bring their own pens, if desired.

A record number of voters participated in the Democratic primary for president on March 3, although overall turnout was 37 percent.

Galvin’s office said the state will also continue to treat individuals who are self-quarantining because of the coronavirus as if they had been admitted to a hospital, and allow someone to pick up an absentee ballot for them.

“We did just have 1.4 million people vote and to our knowledge no one caught coronavirus at a polling place, so that is promising,” said Deb O’Malley, spokeswoman for Galvin.

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Matt Murphy

State House News Service
The legislation sought by Galvin would enable him to postpone an election or extend deadlines by up to 45 days in circumstances when the state or the federal government has declared a state of emergency, or a disaster exists. He could also move polling locations without going to court, or authorize alternative voting procedures, including the use of electronic absentee ballots for first responders.

The Legislature scheduled special elections for March 31 to fill seats vacated in the House by Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell and Alliance for Business Leadership President Jennifer Benson of Lunenberg, and in the Senate by Westfield Mayor Donald Humason and Viriato deMacedo of Plymouth, who took a job at Bridgewater State University.