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Secretary of State plan would allow any voter to request mail-in ballot

A roll of "I Voted Today' stickers sat on a table at Town Hall in Richmond.Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP

Any Massachusetts voter could vote by mail ahead of the September state primary or the November general election under a proposal the secretary of state’s office says will ease access to the ballot amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The plan, released Wednesday by Secretary of State William F. Galvin, would need to be filed and approved by the Legislature, and adds to a variety of proposals lawmakers have already floated to expand voting options amid fears COVID-19 could upend elections this fall.

Galvin, the state’s chief elections officer, is seeking to allow any voter this year to vote early by mail, without an excuse, should they request a ballot. His seven-page bill, a draft of which his office released Wednesday, would also establish a 7-day early voting period ahead of the Sept. 1 primary — there currently isn’t one — and expand the required window before the Nov. 3 election from a 10-day period to 18 days.

The plan would also allow voters to return ballots to an “official drop box” or ask a family member to deliver the ballot by hand, something that isn’t currently allowed. Voters could also submit their request for a mail-in ballot electronically.

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Galvin said the state should still keep options open for in-person voting. But, he said in a statement, "the best way to do that is to spread it out over as many days as possible, to avoid crowding in the polling places.”

The Legislature earlier this year passed a bill that allows any voter to send in an absentee ballot, but it limited it to elections through June 30.

And some Democrats in the Legislature have pushed proposals that go further than Galvin’s plan by calling for the state to proactively mail every registered voter a ballot ahead of the September and November elections, rather than requiring them to request it. Galvin, who last month said he was crafting a legislative package, has thrown cold water on the idea.

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Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, said the House “supports ongoing efforts to modify our elections process to protect public health" and specifically cited Representatives Michael J. Moran and John J. Lawn, who filed their own piece of legislation.

The bill — which is sponsored by Eric P. Lesser and Adam G. Hinds in the Senate and backed by Common Cause Massachusetts — would allow two weeks of early voting before the September primary and three weeks of early voting before the November vote.

It also would require Galvin to mail ballots to all Massachusetts voters for the general election without an application.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka, whose chamber last year backed an early voting period for the September primary, said Wednesday that the committee on elections law is reviewing bills “that prioritize the health and safety of our voters.”

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 places.

Michelle K. Tassinari, the director and legal counsel for Galvin’s Elections Division, wrote in a letter Wednesday that other states are also seeking ways to beef up mail-in options for the fall election. That, she said, will intensify competition for “materials and equipment."

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“We want to make sure we have the time to order the paper for ballots, create and have envelopes manufactured, and determine the needs for other equipment that local election officials may need to process vote-by-mail ballots,” Tassinari said.

The costs tied to an enhanced vote-by-mail system for the November general election alone can be significant, ranging anywhere from $12 million to $30 million, according to estimates compiled by The Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University.

And while polling shows it’s extremely popular in Massachusetts, especially among Democrats and unenrolled voters, the options for executing it come with trade-offs, according to the Tufts center’s report.

One option pushed by lawmakers, to mail every registered voter a ballot, would help boost participation, but it also risks ballots piling up at wrong addresses and feeding into “exaggerated tales, or pictures, of misused ballots [that] could go instantly viral," the report states.

Another option is to instead broadly distribute applications, in lieu of ballots, so people can then request absentee ballots, cutting down the potential for fraud. But the report said that also creates another step that could discourage residents from actually voting, and a potential choke point at local clerk’s offices, who then could be juggling a flood of new paperwork to process.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.