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Mass. secretary of state crafting vote-by-mail package, cautions against mailing every voter a ballot

Secretary of State William F. Galvin spoke to reporters in March.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin spoke to reporters in March.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Tuesday he is crafting a legislative package that would allow early voting by mail before September’s primary election and expand the window people could send in ballots before November’s general election amid fears the COVID-19 pandemic could drag into, and past, the fall.

Galvin, the state’s chief election officer, said he’s finalizing details of the proposal, with the goal of releasing it in May to allow time for it to gain legislative approval.

But the Brighton Democrat, who’s raised concerns about other mail-in voting proposals, said he believes any changes should still keep open in-person voting on Sept. 1, the state primary, and Nov. 3, the general presidential election, to allow voters “maximum options” for casting a ballot.

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He also indicated his plan won’t go as far as other bills that call on the state to proactively mail every registered voter in the state a ballot.

“We need to expand the time period for early voting by mail — make it earlier, longer. And I want that applied to the primary,” Galvin said in an interview Tuesday. “There’s been a lot of advocacy, for a lack of a better word, for voting by mail. We can do it. We just have to do it properly.”

There’s currently no early voting period ahead of the September primary and a 10-day window for people to cast ballots ahead of the November election. Galvin did not commit to a specific time frame but said he supports expanding it beyond the 10 days.

Mail-in absentee ballots are already available for all elections, but they are limited to those who are disabled, will be out of town on Election Day, or have religious beliefs preventing them from voting at their normal polling place. And while lawmakers passed a bill in March that allows for early “no excuse” voting by mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it applies only to elections before June 30.

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Concerns that the threat of infection will hover well beyond the initial wave of cases have prompted a flood of proposals from Democrats aimed at expanding the ways people can submit ballots, particularly for November’s presidential election.

State Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, and Representative Adrian Madaro, an East Boston Democrat, introduced legislation last week that would dramatically overhaul voting procedures for the rest of the 2020 election season, including by mailing every registered voter in the state a ballot ahead of the Sept. 1 primary and, again, before the November general election.

Rausch argued that doing so proactively avoids putting the “burden on voters and local clerks."

“We must safeguard our democracy,” Rausch said in an interview. “Free, fair, and safely accessible elections are a pillar of our democratic system. COVID-19 must not strip that away.”

Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation are also calling on the state Legislature to pass a bill allowing universal vote-by-mail in time for the Sept. 1 election. "That means ballots should be mailed to every single voter in the Commonwealth,” said Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is mounting a primary challenge to Senator Edward J. Markey.

But Galvin has thrown cold water on the idea, saying independent voters, who can pull a Democratic or Republican ballot in primary races, would need to first signal which one they intend to vote in.

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Galvin said his office also needs time to gather feedback from local clerks, including details on how they would store and tabulate a dramatically increased load of mail-in ballots.

“We can’t just mail ballots out to people. You’re going to have to request the ballot and tell us which one you want to vote in,” Galvin said. “You have to put the burden on the voter to say, which primary do you want to vote in?"

Rausch’s bill addresses this issue by directing that voters registered with a particular party are automatically mailed that party’s primary ballot, while unenrolled voters would have to request a mail-in ballot.

Galvin said he understands that people shouldn’t be forced to go to the polls if they’re willing to vote by mail. But he also said in-person voting should remain to allow another chance for “people who want to wait.”

He cited complaints from the March 3 presidential primary from some people who voted early, only to have their chosen candidate ultimately drop out ahead of the Super Tuesday vote.

“Some of these proposals, they’re great for press releases," Galvin said of universal mail-in voting. "But they’re not good for actually conducting an election.”

Elections and campaigns are among the countless facets of life that have been upended by the spread of COVID-19, prompting an intensifying debate about how the state should adjust.

Massachusetts’ highest court on Friday eased the legal requirements for candidates to get on the ballot this September.

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Backing three candidates who had sued the state, the court agreed that forcing candidates to comply with existing signature minimums is unconstitutional given the public health crisis.

The Supreme Judicial Court cut in half the number of signatures required for all candidates to appear on the state’s Sept. 1 primary ballot, and it said that Galvin must accept electronic — in addition to the standard ink — signatures.

Justice Scott L. Kafker, in a concurring opinion, also sharply criticized state officials for not having the technological capacity to address the issue, and for several pages, bemoaned the limitations described by Galvin’s office, including concerns that local election officials — who certify the signatures candidates have collected — would be unable to open large e-mail attachments containing voters’ signatures.

“In this ‘high tech’ era, and in the midst of a global pandemic that severely restricts close personal contact, the failure to be able to solve manageable technological problems on the eve of an election is confounding and distressing,” he wrote.

Galvin, who was first elected as secretary of state in 1994, said he’s open to exploring ways to ease the use of electronic signatures but said he still has concerns about ensuring “the system is secure."

“I think Judge Kafker, in his opinion, clearly advocated for the idea, and that’s fine,” Galvin said. “We’ll talk about it.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.