Constitutional challenge to vote-by-mail likely

Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin and voting rights advocates want to allow Massachusetts residents to vote by mail for any reason. But is that constitutional?

The Massachusetts Constitution explicitly says the Legislature can authorize absentee voting for just three reasons: if someone is out of town, physically disabled, or cannot vote on Election Day due to a religious belief.

Lawmakers acknowledged the constraint in 2013, when they considered but did not act on a constitutional amendment to allow absentee voting for any reason.

There’s been a long-term traditional view that opportunities to vote by mail in Massachusetts are constrained by the Constitution, which specifies particular conditions under which you can do this,” said Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University.

Last year amid the pandemic, the Legislature allowed anyone to apply for an absentee ballot by defining COVID-19 precautions as a physical disability. They also allowed universal early voting by mail, under the rationale that the constitutional constraint does not apply to early voting, which the state just adopted in 2014. In other words, early ballots, even if they are mailed in, are different from absentee ballots.

It is the latter opinion that Galvin is relying on in introducing his new bill, which would permanently expand early voting by mail.

David Sullivan, an attorney working with a coalition of advocates pushing to make mail-in voting permanent, penned a legal memo arguing that the Legislature has authority to authorize mail-in voting. Sullivan examined the legislative intent during the 1917 constitutional convention that passed the constitutional amendment authorizing absentee voting. The amendment was intended to address a constitutional provision requiring senators to be chosen at “meetings” with voters physically present. 

A lawmaker said at the time that the Legislature wanted to let “the soldiers, the traveling men, and the laboring man who may be kept away, or the railroad man” vote. (Elections for senators by written ballot were instituted the following year.) Later amendments were passed adding disabilities and religious beliefs to the reasons allowed for absentee voting.

Sullivan believes the Legislature can authorize vote by mail for any reason, but he acknowledged in an interview that his interpretation is unlikely to be universally accepted. “I expect it will be litigated at some point,” Sullivan said.

The bill supported by the advocates specifies that any challenge to the constitutionality of voting by mail must be brought in the Supreme Judicial Court within 180 days after the bill’s passage. A lawsuit would be barred if it sought to overturn the outcome of an election in which people already voted.

“We obviously don’t want people to vote by mail then find out afterwards that it was illegal,” Sullivan said.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Gov. Charlie Baker offers a special perk to anyone who helps someone over 75 get inoculated at one of the state’s mass vaccination sites — a vaccination of their own.

The state’s top climate change official resigned Wednesday night for comments made during a recent Zoom conversation with a Vermont environmental panel. Zoom conference call last month. Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker again denounced the comments, saying they don’t reflect the administration’s thinking or approach. 

Virus notes: The groups at the head of the COVID-19 vaccination line keep expanding, which means longer waits for those down the line. Also, 88 percent of residents and 63 percent of staff at nursing homes have been inoculated. Gov. Charlie Baker calls in the National Guard at two mass vaccination sites to help with logistics.

Eleven inmates accuse the Department of Correction of “deliberate indifference” to a provision in the state budget requiring the release of inmates during the pandemic. The DOC, however, tells a judge the law gives officials wide discretion and the offer of vaccinations is proof of a strong interest in the safety of prisoners.

Six legislative districts shift to majority-minority, reflecting a decade-long growth in population of minority groups.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Some pastors and a minority police officer association are slamming Mayor Marty Walsh’s decision to put his new police commissioner, Dennis White, on leave over a 1999 allegation of domestic violence, saying black officers receive harsher treatment in the city. White is the city’s second black commissioner. (Boston Globe

The attorney general says a Danvers select board member violated the open meeting law by emailing other members of the board in support of the town manager during a controversy over Thin Blue Line flags. (Salem News)

Boston city councilors are demanding change after a report shows minority-owned businesses received just 2.5 percent of city contracts during Mayor Marty Walsh’s first four years in office.  (Boston Globe

The Gloucester harbormaster has sued the mayor for harassment and creating a hostile work environment, allegedly in retaliation for the harbormaster serving as an expert witness in a trial regarding the sinking of the Orin C fishing vessel. (Gloucester Daily Times

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester vote to authorize a strike over a demand to increase staffing levels. (Telegram & Gazette)

Cape legislators decry the lack of mass vaccination siteS in Barnstable county, which has over 26,000 residents over 75. (Cape Cod Times) 

Gov. Charlie Baker says the state will consider including asthma with those conditions that move someone up on the vaccine schedule. (Boston Herald

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe had done remarkably well at holding COVID at bay — until now. (Boston Globe)

MassLive looks at how researchers at UMass Medical School are using genomic sequencing to track which COVID-19 variants are present in Massachusetts. 

The company running the Eastfield Mall vaccination site makes changes to let seniors wait indoors, after reports of long lines in the cold. (MassLive)

A Harvard Kennedy School study gives Massachusetts an F on its handling of the vaccine rollout and says it ranks among the last states in the country. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

House impeachment managers say the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol last month came very close to harming Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress. (Washington Post)  

ELECTIONS

Boston mayoral candidates may be less eager this year to get backing from police unions in the midst of calls for sweeping police reform. (Boston Globe

EDUCATION

Nichols College worries about a COVID-19 outbreak after the police break up a 50-student off-campus party. (Telegram & Gazette)

UMass Amherst is instructing students to quarantine amid a COVID-19 outbreak, putting students who work off-campus at risk of losing their jobs if they can’t work remotely. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

The Holyoke schools receiver – the state-appointed authority running the district – is on leave, days after he said he contracted COVID-19. (MassLive)

Hingham is on the verge of an agreement with the Massachusetts School Building Authority that allows a third of the cost of a feasibility study on fixes or replacement of the Foster School to be reimbursed. (Patriot Ledger)

ARTS/CULTURE

Fundraising from radio personality Glenn Beck keeps the owner of Danvers music hall and restaurant Breakaway afloat. (Salem News)

TRANSPORTATION

Lawmakers and advocates are calling on auto insurers to reduce rates since people are driving less during the pandemic. (Gloucester Daily Times)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Scientists and fisherman hope a new kind of gear technology called “ropeless” fishing can save right whales — and the local lobster fishery. (GBH)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

US Attorney Andrew Lelling is stepping down at the end of the month. (WBUR)

The state court system begins notifying as many as 27,000 people that their drunken driving convictions could be overturned because of problems with the Breathalyzer tests used on them. (Boston Herald

Sen. Michael Moore says the recently passed police reform could put officers’ lives in dangers. (Telegram & Gazette)

DigBoston takes a look at addiction treatment for those civilly committed.

MEDIA

In his Media Nation blog, Dan Kennedy sizes up the pro and con arguments made recently in CommonWealth about transparency in the Legislature by Raymond La Raja, a professor of political science at UMass Amherst, and Colman M. Herman. Kennedy sides with Herman

\Instagram has barred Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from the platform for spreading debunked claims about coronavirus and vaccines. (New York Times)