A dramatic expansion of voting by mail in Massachusetts amid the coronavirus pandemic could cost tens of millions of dollars, and create a “complex trade-off" as people, wary of COVID-19′s lingering threat, demand options to vote from home, according to a new report.
The costs tied to a beefed-up vote-by-mail system for the November general election alone range anywhere from $12 million to $30 million, according to estimates compiled by The Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University.
But while the state has a variety of federal funds it can tap — including up to $40 million in money left unused from a 2002 federal law — actually delivering on an expanded program is a complex challenge that risks heavily taxing already-thin municipal election staffs, the report states.
The warnings come as the debate over whether, and how, the state could expand voting has simmered for weeks amid fears the virus will upend daily life for months to come.
Nearly three out of four respondents to a Suffolk University/Globe/WGBH News poll released Tuesday said they would support conducting all voting for the September primary and November general by mail, with the strongest support coming from Democrats and Independents. And both lawmakers and Secretary of State William F. Galvin have floated ideas about how to eliminate hurdles to voting if people are nervous about standing in polling place lines for the September primary or November general election.
Massachusetts “needs to adapt its voting rules” to accommodate for the virus, the report states, but how remains an open question.
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.
“The prospect of stacks of ballots being sent to the wrong places or people with more than one ballot raises the concern that someone can use it to undermine faith in the election,” said Evan Horowitz, the center’s executive director. “How do you weigh that as a risk?”
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 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.
There’s another hurdle to all of this: Massachusetts is one of 16 states that requires a valid excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. That means the Legislature would have to pass a law declaring that everyone has a valid excuse for all elections in 2020 because of the virus — a step that it already has done for elections through June 30.
Or, the report says, lawmakers could expand the state’s early voting by mail program, though that approach could invite legal challenges.
“There is no clear answer to the question of whether Massachusetts should automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters, only a complex trade-off between expanded opportunity and election security,” the report states.
By one estimate, even the most efficient vote-by-mail system costs about $5 per absentee voter. At that rate, should 70 percent of likely Massachusetts voters decide to vote at home in November, it would cost at least $12 million.
A separate estimate from the Brennan Center for Justice found that making vote-by-mail an option for all eligible voters in the state might cost between $20 million and $30 million — and just for the general election, according to the report.
Those estimates also don’t include any additional costs in steeling polling places against the virus, though any moves to consolidate where people can vote could offset those. The report also advocates for keeping in-person voting in place.
It notes, however, that lawmakers can seek an array of financial help. The state is eligible for an $8 million grant for COVID-19-related election costs under recently passed federal legislation, and it also has access to as much as $40 million in unused money from the 2002 Help America Vote Act.
The Tufts center that authored the report was founded in February and has framed itself as a nonpartisan entity providing real-time analysis of legislation and state policies.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.