Watching events in Washington with disappointment, many have reached out to me to check in on voting rights in Massachusetts. Here is where we stand.
There is a strong consensus in both branches of the state legislature to continue improving access to the ballot. Both branches have voted for extension of mail-in voting and the senate has voted for a broader package of reforms. All agree that we need to get a strong package across the finish line soon. While we may differ as to some elements, there is little prospect of the philosophical deadlock we have seen in Washington.
The most important reform is permanent no-excuse mail-in voting for all elections. We started that system as a public health priority when COVID hit, but it also creates valuable flexibility for voters. In state/federal election years, the secretary of state would mail out ballot applications to every registered voter on July 15. Local election officials would mail ballots to those who send in their application. Return postage would be guaranteed for both the ballot application and for the ballot. For other elections, local officials would send out applications by request. Ballots mailed before the election and received by the third day after the election would be counted.
Additionally, the senate package requires a period of early voting in-person — voters could come to a polling place and vote during the two weeks before a state/federal general election or one week before a primary. Municipalities would have an option to allow early in-person voting for local elections.
The senate bill also includes a requirement to allow same-day registration on election day or during the early in-person voting period.
All three of these measures substantially increase voter access, but increase the work load on our election officers. The senate package does include changes to make the process more manageable. Traditional in-person voting involves the following steps for poll workers: Identify and check a voter off as they walk in, hand them a ballot, check them off again as they walk out. Mail-in voting involves many more steps — ballot applications need to be mailed out (by the secretary of state or by a local election official); when the ballot application is returned, a ballot package with an outer return mailing envelope and an inner secrecy envelope needs to be assembled and mailed; and then when the ballot is returned, it needs to be checked off the voter list, opened in a way that preserves voter privacy, run through the voting machine and checked off on a second control list. As in traditional in-person voting, records must be maintained at each step and ultimately reconciled with other records.
The senate bill allows poll workers to spread out the additional work by running ballots into the voting machines as they come in over the days before the election (without actually running a tabulation of results). Additionally, the senate bill makes optional the secondary check-off of voters after the ballot is cast.
In addition to these basic expansions of access for all voters, the senate bill includes provisions to make voting easier for people with disabilities and for people in jail. Voters with disabilities will be able request accommodations from the secretary of state for voting by mail in state elections. People in jail who are eligible to vote will be provided with voting information and necessary materials, but voting eligibility rules will not change. Massachusetts denies offenders the right to vote only while they are incarcerated after conviction for a felony; incarcerated people do remain eligible if they are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted and they become eligible again after their release from prison.
Finally, the bill requires the Commonwealth to start working with the Electronic Registration Information Center and share data with other states to identify people who have moved, remove them from their old addresses, and help them re-register in their new addresses.
I am hopeful that we will put a reform package that includes most of these elements on the Governor’s desk soon.