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State voting reforms can’t wait

Legislators need to act fast to get an all-mail-in voting system in place for November.

Massachusetts legislators are trying to institute a mail-in-ballot system that will avoid scenes like this one — a line to vote in the Wisconsin primary election, in Milwaukee on April 7.Morry Gash/Associated Press

There is no shortage of good intentions about the need to make voting in Massachusetts both safe and easy this fall — so that voters don’t feel they are risking their lives to cast a ballot and poll workers aren’t put at risk.

But the electoral timetable is coming at public officials like that proverbial speeding freight train. So those good intentions will need to be turned into one coherent piece of legislation and passed by a Legislature that has been barely limping along for two months and only now has managed to discover 21st-century technology.

The key will be to expand mail-in voting — something other states, like Oregon, did years ago — and to expand early voting, and, yes, to combine the two. But for all its high tech expertise, Massachusetts isn’t Oregon, and no state can turn its system around on a dime in the midst of a pandemic.

In a recent letter to legislative leaders, US Representative Joe Kennedy wrote, “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.”


Not exactly a surprise coming from a guy locked in a red-hot Democratic primary race against incumbent Senator Ed Markey. And it seems like only yesterday when Kennedy’s biggest complaint was that the Sept. 1 primary date was too early.

But Massachusetts currently has nearly 4.6 million registered voters. The Brennan Center in a recent report recommended that any state expanding its mail-in voting process should print enough absentee and in-person ballots to accommodate 120 percent of its registration. In other words, be ready for everything.

So right off, this is no small operation.

And there is the reality check.


“You can’t just mail out ballots unsolicited,” said Secretary of State William Galvin, who is the guy who has to make all those moving electoral parts work. “Sometimes the mail isn’t all that reliable, and sometimes addresses aren’t reliable.”

Galvin expects to have his own proposal before lawmakers shortly but addressed its broad outlines in an interview. “We want to expand the opportunities for voters to participate,” by both mail and early voting. “We want to preserve election day and make it as safe as possible, and we want to protect the integrity of the process and account for every ballot.”

In doing so, Galvin and the Legislature are up against a tight timetable. Ballots for the Nov. 3 election must, according to federal law (which governs balloting for the military and Americans living abroad), be printed by mid-September. Ballots for the Sept. 1 primary must be ready by July 18. Galvin said that means he and the army of city and town election officials on the ground need to have a plan in place by early June to make this all work.

And for all the talk of switching to an all-mail-in system, there are some constitutional niceties to be considered. Expanding early voting for the first time to primary elections is a simple change in the statute. Absentee voting via mail-in is actually written into the state Constitution, which takes a six-year process to change. But for the upcoming fall elections, lawmakers could do what they did for this spring’s local elections and special elections in two legislative districts, which allowed the secretary’s office to vastly expand the definition of “disability." That makes absentee voting by mail legal for anyone who is “avoiding your polling place as a precautionary measure in response to COVID-19.”


Kennedy’s pitch closely mirrors a bill filed by state Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, which proposes a ballot package be mailed to every voter and requires the secretary of state to “procure, implement, and give all city and town clerks access to ballot-tracking software to permit the tracking of all ballots issued and cast” by mail.

"There are a lot of lofty ideas out there, and if we had all the time to implement them and help from the federal government to fund them. . . ,” said Senator Cynthia Stone Creem of Newton, who has filed a bill along the lines Galvin described. “But we really don’t have a lot of time left.”

Which makes this a year not for magical thinking but one of doing that which is possible. All eyes will be on Massachusetts lawmakers to do their part in making sure the 2020 election is as safe and secure as humanly possible, all while making it just a little easier to exercise this most precious of freedoms.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.