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Voting by mail in New England? Coronavirus could lead to the biggest changes in the way Americans vote in more than half a century

Ballot security team members collected mail-in ballots in a box outside the Barnum Recreation Center in Denver, N.C.
Ballot security team members collected mail-in ballots in a box outside the Barnum Recreation Center in Denver, N.C.Michael Ciaglo/Getty

Coronavirus has already infected hundreds of thousands, rattled markets, and disrupted life as we know it. Soon, it could also lead the most significant changes in how Americans vote in decades, especially in New England, where some towns have been voting the same way for a lifetime.

The traditional way, after all, doesn’t exactly adhere to social distancing. Election Day often involves older volunteer poll workers, long lines, and voters using the same pens and touching the same voting equipment.

So for the first time ever, there is significant movement in New England to implement mail-in balloting, a method that, so far, has largely been a West Coast phenomenon. In the past, people opposed to voting by mail worried it could lead to voter fraud, while advocates said it increases voter turnout overall. But in the present moment, many in power see this as the only short-term solution.

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“States are already doing this. We know this system works as well as the best practices,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Brennan Center at the New York University Law School, which in March put out detailed recommendations for what needed to be done nationwide. “This election is happening. Unless we make changes, we can expect to see a huge shortage of poll workers, and a drop in voter registration and turnout. Even if this mail-in ballot method is a short-term fix, it’s something we need to be planning for immediately."

Among the most stunning changes in the past few weeks is how Republican leaders, who have strongly opposed a move toward voting by mail in the past, swiftly changed their minds — at least temporarily. In a matter of days, Republican governors in nine states have signed laws or executive orders authorizing mail-in ballots, including Massachusetts, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota, Vermont, Ohio, Alaska, and Maryland. Prominent Republican leaders in five other conservative states suggested their states could soon follow.

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To be sure, the coronavirus outbreak could have largely passed by the time the presidential election rolls around this November. But the respected Imperial College report, which reportedly convinced President Trump to take the current outbreak more seriously, suggested that the worst of the crisis in the United States could be from mid-October to mid-November.

And there are plenty of elections before Nov. 3.

Rhode Island will for the first time try a “predominately” mail-in voting for its presidential primary this year as part of an executive order signed by Governor Gina Raimondo last week, which also moved the state’s presidential primary back to June 2.

“These are times that call for us to look at how we can improve our election systems,” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea in a phone interview.

Soon her state will be mailing out “voting applications” to every registered voter, largely because independent voters can choose which primary ballot they want. After an application is received and the party’s ballot selected, the voter will be mailed a ballot. When the ballots are returned to a central place, they will eventually be counted. One in-person voting place will be open in every community on Election Day for those still hoping to vote as usual.

Similarly, in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law provisions allowing all local and state elections held before June 30 to be conducted by mail-in ballot.

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As for the general election, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin noted the Commonwealth essentially has mail-in ballots because early voting by mail begins 15 days before the election under current law.

However, there are no plans for early voting ahead of the Massachusetts state primary in September, which is expected to feature a US Senate Democratic primary between incumbent Ed Markey and his challenger, US Representative Joe Kennedy III. In statements to the Globe, both the Markey and Kennedy campaigns supported the concept of adding mail-in balloting or early voting to their primary.

One complication with expanding mail-in balloting even further in Massachusetts and beyond: who pays for the postage. Currently, postage is essentially split between local cities and towns and the voter directly when they mail back the ballot. The one-time cost for Rhode Island’s June presidential primary is estimated to be $850,000.

One potential fix to that could be the large $2 trillion stimulus package the US House passed on a voice vote Friday and President Trump signed into law a few hours later. Among the items in the new law was $400 million earmarked for election security grants for states. It remains unclear how exactly states can use that money.

Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon called the election grants in the stimulus bill a “step in the right direction.”

"In times of crisis, the American people cannot be forced to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote," Klobuchar and Wyden said in a joint statement.

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The pair introduced a bill last month calling for at least 20 days of early voting nationwide with no-excuse absentee ballots offered to voters. (Markey is a cosponsor.)

In the weeks since the government response to the coronavirus essentially put all 2020 elections on hold, a dozen states and the territory of Puerto Rico have moved their primary elections into the late spring and summer. Meanwhile, the Alaska Democratic Party decided to have its primary Saturday by mail-in ballot only.

Along with Rhode Island, Connecticut also moved back its presidential primary until June. In an op-ed last month Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill made a public plea to Governor Ned Lamont to also sign an executive order for mail-in ballots.

“Delaying the primary does not entirely solve the underlying problem. The November general election cannot be delayed, and it surely can’t be denied,” Merrill wrote in the Hartford Courant. “We are on the precipice of disaster but, acting together, putting aside partisanship, we can ensure that every Connecticut voter is able to safely, conveniently and fairly cast their ballot and have it counted.”

Maine and Vermont also passed emergency voting measures recently aimed at more local elections in the short term, but several government officials from those states said they were talking a day-by-day approach to the spread of the virus before advocating for wholesale changes to how their residents vote.

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In New Hampshire, a presidential swing state, public officials have been mum on the matter. So far just one executive councilor — part of a powerful elected body that oversees government spending and appointments — requested that the secretary of state appear at a meeting soon and consider an increase in no-excuse absentee voting or even offering voting over two days. Last fall, Republican Governor Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that would have added no-excuse absentee balloting.

Heading into this election cycle, five states conducted their elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Another 34 states, like Massachusetts, have some form of early voting where people can cast ballots by mail.

While mail-in balloting has largely been something Democrats have called for, believing increased voter turnout helps their chances of winning, the unique nature of the coronavirus could get more Republicans on board — at least temporarily. Exit polls in 2016 found that those age 65 and older were President Trump’s most reliable voting bloc.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.