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Kennedy calls on Beacon Hill to pass vote-by-mail law

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III is asking top state lawmakers to pass legislation creating a vote-by-mail program in Massachusetts for the rest of the 2020 election season.

“Every single registered voter in our Commonwealth should be mailed a ballot, guaranteeing that no one has to risk exposure to a deadly virus to exercise their right to vote,” Kennedy wrote in a letter to state Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

Kennedy, who is challenging incumbent US Senator Edward J. Markey in the Sept. 1 primary, noted that New York, New Hampshire, and Maryland have all moved in recent weeks to ensuring voters can casts ballots by mail during the pandemic.

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“Massachusetts should be on the cutting edge of voting rights, political participation, and access to the democratic process,” Kennedy said. He said that a vote-by-mail system is the best way for the state to "protect the integrity of our 2020 elections.”

The issue of voting by mail has become a major focus in recent days as election experts, voting rights advocates, and others urge states to set up ways for voters to safely participate in elections safely during the pandemic. Markey’s campaign also has said he supports adding mail-in balloting, and he is a co-sponsor of legislation introduced by Democrats in the Senate that would expand early voting and no-excuse absentee voting in every state for the 2020 election.

President Trump and other Republicans have pushed back against calls for expanded voting-by-mail, but some Republican governors have embraced it, including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who recently announced anyone can vote by absentee ballot in this year’s elections.

Noting that the Legislature is weighing bills to reduce the number of signatures some candidates need to get on the ballot, Kennedy said it was important for lawmakers to ensure that voters can access the ballot, too.

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The coronavirus pandemic, and the strict social distancing measures in effect to slow its spread, has made it more difficult for candidates of all stripes to secure the number of signatures they need to collect in the next few weeks to qualify for the Sept. 1 primary ballot.

Spilka said late Friday that the Senate would take action on legislation that would reduce by half the number of signatures needed for all elected offices requiring 1,000 signatures or more. Candidates for state House and Senate seats would not be included.

Markey is among the candidates who hadn’t finished gathering the necessary signatures before the virus shut down normal campaigning, so the proposed bill would help him by reducing to 5,000 signatures, from the 10,000 required now, that he would need to collect by May 5.

Kennedy’s campaign already delivered more than 15,000 signatures to town and city clerks to be certified as valid, after which the campaign will send them to the secretary of state.

Separately, a bipartisan group of three Massachusetts candidates filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Judicial Court to intervene and provide relief from the signature requirements for all candidates in the state.

Without a change, they argued in the emergency petition, Massachusetts candidates "will face an impossible choice: risk their health and the health of voters in a futile effort to satisfy unjustifiable and unachievable ballot restrictions — or give up on their candidacy.”

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Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.