We must act now to protect the primary election

Legislature must move quickly to ensure broad voter participation

THE MASSACHUSETTS STATE primary on September 1 is now less than 100 days away. If we want to avoid the horror stories we’ve seen from states like Wisconsin and Florida, then the Legislature needs to take action — and fast — to ensure we can have a high-participation election while protecting public health.

So what does that look like?

First, we need to expand early voting to include primaries. The landmark 2014 election modernization bill brought early voting to Massachusetts, and it’s been a hit. When it premiered in the 2016 general election, more than 1 million voters chose to vote early. Early voting will help spread the number of in-person voters out across a greater number of days, making it easier for both voters and poll workers to follow physical distancing guidelines.

Second, we need to reduce the number of people who have to show up in person to vote, and that means embracing vote-by-mail. How to go about this was a major sticking point during the recent legislative hearing on election reform, with some legislators preferring to simply enable every voter to request an absentee ballot, others wanting to mail every eligible voter an absentee ballot application, and others wanting to go further to mail every voter a ballot.

The special elections last week show that voters are flocking to absentee voting. More than one third of the people who voted in the two special state Senate elections voted by mail, and in some towns, a majority of all voters voted by mail.

This makes the case for mailing every eligible voter a ballot clear. Requiring that every voter who wants to vote absentee has to download and print an application creates undue paperwork for local election offices, especially as many may have reduced hours due to the pandemic. Moreover, mailing every voter a ballot takes the burden off the individual voter in this high-stress time and treats voting as the democratic right that it is.

Mailing voters ballots for the primary also recognizes that, for many elections in Massachusetts, the primary is the general. In at least eight of the open legislative House races, it is likely that no candidate other than the winner of the Democratic primary will appear on the ballot in November (and that doesn’t account for the challenges to incumbents). Even in the cases where an election is nominally contested, the state’s Democratic lean and the lean of many districts means that the winner of the Democratic primary will likely be the winner of the general election. We should ensure that as many voters as possible have a say in that.

Granted, primaries do pose an issue that the general election does not — the matter of party registration. That should not be an excuse for inaction. Sen. Becca Rausch and Rep. Adrian Madaro’s Vote by Mail 2020 Act, for example, would mail every voter registered with a party a ballot and then streamline the process for absentee requests for unenrolled voters so that they can choose whichever party’s ballot they prefer.

Third, Massachusetts should eliminate its outdated and arbitrary 20-day voter registration cutoff. If the case for doing so before was not clear, it is especially so now. The voter registration drives that typically occur throughout the summer will not be able to take place due to the pandemic, and paper voter registration forms may be hard to come by as libraries and civic centers are closed. We are already seeing the impact, as new registrations have been falling around the country.

To make matters worse, the primary date this year, September 1st, is on the biggest move-in day in the Boston area. If our colleges and universities do open back up this fall, the students who attend them deserve to be able to vote. As do all of the other renters moving that day, who should not be forced to travel to past polling locations if they need to vote in person.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Finally, we need to take steps to protect in-person voting, lest we risk disenfranchising populations that cannot easily vote by mail. This means providing personal protective equipment for poll workers, access to hand-washing and bathrooms for voters and poll workers, six-feet markers on the ground so that voters can maintain proper distance while in line, among other measures. A bill filed by Rep. Tami Gouveia identifies many of the needed steps and requires cities and towns to develop election preparedness plans. With just about three months to go, that can’t happen soon enough.

Massachusetts loves to celebrate its role in the history of American democracy, but we have often lagged behind other states when it comes to voting access. When could there be a better time to fix this then now?

Jonathan Cohn is chair of the issues committee for the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts.