Vote-by-mail a must for Massachusetts

We need to act now to ensure smooth elections this fall

THIS PANDEMIC CONTINUES to challenge our systems in ways that require new solutions. Last month in Wisconsin, without any clear guidance from their state leaders, millions of voters were forced to choose between risking their lives or letting their voices go unheard. The lack of available poll workers led polling locations to close across the state, and voters waited in long lines without proper social distancing measures.

Wisconsin’s experience made clear that statewide mail-in voting in the time of COVID-19 is now essential. Without it, Massachusetts voters are likely to face a similar choice in September’s primary and in the November election, severely impacting the democratic process and resulting in unprecedented voter suppression. At least five other states have demonstrated that mailing ballots to all voters is feasible, effective, and secure. We should not stop short of this goal.

It is not too late to implement new statewide voting policies to protect election integrity while ensuring that every citizen’s voice is heard. I appreciate Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s call to expand voter access and enfranchisement in the midst of this pandemic. The extension of early voting to seven days ahead of the September primary and 18 days ahead of the November election, coupled with expanded absentee ballot voting, are worthy efforts. These changes reduce crowds at polling locations, limiting exposure risks for both voters and poll workers, many of whom are 65 and over.

Yet even with extended in-person voting hours, voters still face a difficult, if not impossible, choice. Expanding absentee voting so that anyone may formally request to vote by mail would be a step forward, but this change, while simple, adds another barrier where we should aim to reduce them. To protect both voters and our elder poll workers, every voter should be mailed a ballot preemptively. That’s why I cosponsored legislation (HD. 5075), led by House Election Committee chairman John Lawn and second assistant majority leader Mike Moran, which would mail every voter a ballot and safeguard our elections this fall. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington already conduct all elections by mail and offer models for success. If these five states with bipartisan election officials and advocates can figure it out, why can’t Massachusetts?

In addition to addressing the health and safety risks of in-person voting during the pandemic, an investment in mail-in voting this cycle can improve future elections by limiting voter disenfranchisement and even lowering long-term costs. Colorado saw their election costs eventually decrease by about 40 percent when they switched to vote-by-mail.

Massachusetts already receives thousands of absentee ballots each election – under current law, a voter may request an absentee ballot if he or she is out of town, has a physical disability, or is observing a religious holiday – but to process millions of mail-in ballots would mean a significant investment in our election infrastructure. High-speed printing capabilities can ensure that every registered voter receives a ballot in a timely manner, well ahead of election day.

Unenrolled voters, who make up more than 50 percent of voters in the Commonwealth, must have the option to choose a party in the primary, perhaps by following Washington’s lead and receiving one ballot with both options (which is then considered invalid if the voter fills it out for both parties). Storage equipment and high-speed sorting machines and scanners are necessary for processing ballots quickly and securely. To expedite investments for the upcoming election, Massachusetts can tap into federal dollars allocated for these purposes  — through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and the recent CARES Act.

As is already the case with absentee ballot security in Massachusetts, election integrity must be top of mind in transitioning to mail-in voting. While election fraud is exceedingly rare and often used as an excuse to enact policies that suppress turnout, any possibility for fraud can be mitigated with common-sense policies. Colorado, for example, has teams of bipartisan election judges to oversee the ballot counting process, and 24/7 video surveillance of ballot processing centers ensures transparency.

Furthermore, while the president perpetuates the false narrative of widespread voter fraud, several election experts, including Ohio’s former secretary of state, Phil Keisling, argue that voting by mail is actually safer for election integrity. Keisling explained why four years ago in a piece for Washington Monthly:

“Mail-based voting systems today are far less risky than most polling place elections, precisely because they distribute ballots (and electoral risk) in such a decentralized way… Contrast that to the risks inherent in polling place elections that increasingly rely on direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting systems and proprietary software systems that both record and tally votes. A single successful software hack potentially could affect thousands of votes.”

Meet the Author

Andy Vargas

State Representative, Massachusetts Legislature
It is not enough to plan as if the virus may go away by the fall. The pandemic requires swift and bold action. We should resolve to not only adapt to the current public health crisis, but to have the courage to envision a stronger democracy once we rise out of this moment.  We must implement automatic vote-by-mail for the 2020 elections to ensure every voice is heard. Without this urgent effort, we risk participating in massive voter disenfranchisement, while putting the most vulnerable among us in harm’s way.

Andy Vargas is a state representative from Haverhill.