Legislature moves toward adopting permanent voting by mail
Will not take up same-day registration
THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE is poised to adopt permanent voting by mail, but not same-day voter registration.
A committee of House-Senate negotiators on Wednesday released the final version of a voting reform bill, which will be subject to an up or down vote in the House and the Senate. The Senate plans to take up the bill first, on Thursday.
“This is a historic bill that is going to have more people participate, and when more people participate, democracy wins,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and the lead Senate negotiator on the bill.
The bill was released from committee just hours after Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin, a Democrat who supports mail-in voting, called on lawmakers to act. “With less than three months to go before our next statewide election, urgent action is needed so that voters can make a plan to vote, request their ballots, and receive their ballots in a timely manner,” Galvin said.
The bill that emerged from committee would permanently allow voting by mail for any state or presidential primary or general election. Municipal elections would also be subject to mail-in voting, but municipalities could opt to hold an in-person only election if the municipal election is on a different day from a state or federal election.
Similar to the way election were run the last couple of years, the secretary of the Commonwealth would send out ballot applications to all registered voters, and a person could request a ballot by mail or through a website. Mail-in ballots would have postage paid by the state, not the voter. Election officials could process ballots and verify signatures before Election Day, an attempt to alleviate concerns of municipal officials about a bottleneck in processing ballots on Election Day.
The bill expands early voting by providing early voting for two weeks, including two weekends, prior to a general election and one week prior to a primary.
It would allow electronic voting for the first time for overseas military voters, as well as people with disabilities who request an accommodation.
Some voting rights advocates had been pushing lawmakers to abolish the voter registration deadline, which requires someone register at least 20 days before an election, and instead authorize same-day registration. The bill does not do that, but it does shorten the voter registration window to 10 days.
The bill also makes it easier for people in jail to vote by requiring jail officials to help eligible inmates request and return ballots.
The biggest difference between the versions passed by the House and Senate is that the House left same-day voter registration out of their bill. House Speaker Ron Mariano has previously voted against same-day voter registration. Finegold referred questions on same-day voter registration to the House.
Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem, a Newton Democrat and member of the conference committee, said the Senate offered “multiple compromise approaches” on same-day voter registration and she was disappointed it was left out. “I will continue to push for its passage and plan to file legislation on the subject going forward,” Creem said in a statement.
Republicans have raised concerns about the security of voting by mail. The conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance has worried that ballots will be lost in the mail or tampered with, while a group of Republican candidates voiced concerns in a lawsuit that a lack of a mechanism for confirming voters’ identities will increase voter fraud. The two Republicans on the conference committee, Sen. Ryan Fattman and Rep. Shawn Dooley, did not sign off on the final bill.
Finegold brushed off concerns about voter fraud, noting that voters must affirm their identity under penalty of perjury, risking a felony charge if they lie. “I don’t think people are that into voting that they’re willing to go to jail over it,” Finegold said.
Moran said he has heard refrains about voting security “over and over again” in every major election reform bill that’s passed since he chaired the Election Laws Committee between 2009 and 2012. “I’ve never seen any proof that it’s happened on a grand scale,” Moran said.
Finegold said mail-in voting is the logical next step in a world where everything from groceries to cars can be ordered to one’s home. “This is 2022, we get everything delivered to our house,” Finegold said. “There’s no reason ballots shouldn’t be the same situation.”
The state will incur additional costs for sending out the ballot applications and ballots and paying for additional polling hours. One study by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University estimated that voting by mail could cost anywhere from $12 million to $30 million per general election. Finegold could not immediately provide a cost estimate for the bill.A coalition of voting rights groups praised the bill, even as they urged lawmakers to adopt same-day registration in the future. Patricia Comfort, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, said in a statement, “Voting by mail and in-person early voting made it easier and safer for people to vote during the pandemic and should continue to improve turnout in our elections. The League applauds the Legislature for making these reforms permanent, and we encourage legislators to continue to improve access to the ballot box by taking up same-day voter registration in the next session.”