Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation on Thursday called on the state Legislature to pass a bill allowing universal vote-by-mail in time for the Sept. 1 primary election, arguing voters shouldn’t be asked to choose between their safety and their right to vote during the pandemic.
Citing the chaos in Wisconsin’s presidential primary election earlier this month, the lawmakers were joined by voting rights advocates in urging Massachusetts to plan now for the possibility the coronavirus outbreak will affect the state primary, or the Nov. 3 general election. They also warned that taking no action would amount to allowing widespread voter suppression.
“That means ballots should be mailed to every single voter in the Commonwealth,” said Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who will be on the Sept. 1 ballot as he mounts a primary challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey.
Kennedy hosted a virtual press conference via Zoom, alongside Representatives Jim McGovern, Ayanna Pressley, Katherine Clark, and Lori Trahan.
In addition to mandating that ballots automatically be mailed to voters, lawmakers and advocates are pushing for the ballots to come in multiple languages and with prepaid postage.
In Wisconsin, chaos and confusion reigned on election day after unsuccessful attempts to delay the voting and extend absentee-ballot deadlines, forcing many voters to show up in person to vote. A shortage of poll workers left Milwaukee with just five polling places, and many waited in hours-long lines to cast ballots. A lawsuit by Wisconsin voters alleges they were disenfranchised or forced to risk their health to exercise their right to vote.
The issues in Wisconsin and elsewhere have spurred Democrats to push for universal vote-by-mail as a coronavirus relief measure. The most recent federal stimulus bill included $400 million for state governments to prepare for election administration. But Democrats are seeking an additional $4 billion for states to implement universal vote-by-mail in 2020.
“We have no idea whether there will be a resurgence of this virus in the fall, but we have to be prepared," McGovern said Thursday.
President Trump has been vocal in his opposition to mail-in ballots, calling them prone to fraud, though there’s no evidence of widespread problems with such systems. Several states, including heavily Republican Utah, already have vote-by-mail. Trump himself cast an absentee ballot in March.
Members of Massachusetts’ all-Democrat congressional delegation dismissed the notion that voting by mail law could lead to fraud, charging that Trump and others who oppose it are attempting to suppress the vote.
“Like so much else of what the president says, it’s a bunch of BS," McGovern said. “This is simply not a partisan issue."
For now, it remains unclear whether voters will receive a ballot in their mailboxes in time for the Sept. 1 primary, just 4½ months away. Kennedy said on Thursday that while Senate President Karen Spilka is generally supportive of the idea, what’s been proposed in that chamber doesn’t go far enough.
“The Senate has historically led on voting access, and we support increasing access to vote-by-mail generally. We are currently working to understand the ramifications of each piece of legislation filed, and will look closely at each," Spilka said in a statement Thursday.
Asked whether it would be possible to implement such a system this year, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin said she would need to review specifics but cited cost as a potential factor.
“We do know that funding will definitely be necessary to cover the costs of mailing ballots this fall, as those costs currently fall to municipalities and voters. Congressional action to cover the cost of the mailing of federal election ballots would be very helpful,” Debra O’Malley wrote in an e-mail.