A threat to democracy from the coronavirus looms: whether free and fair elections can be held during the pandemic. Many of the reforms proposed on Beacon Hill expand voter options to vote by mail, a move that should be implemented right away.
But helping all voters to participate in the September primary and November elections requires an all-of-the-above approach. In addition to implementing vote-by-mail, the state should expand access to safe in-person voting options.
Massachusetts overwhelmingly votes in person, but historically marginalized groups use it even more. In 2018, Black Americans were the most likely racial group to participate in in-person voting and the least likely to vote by mail. Lower-income and younger voters with less stable mailing addresses, the homeless, and voters who need language assistance also depend on voting at polling places. Mounting job losses will exacerbate the challenge of mailing ballots to those hardest to reach. Without safe in-person options, many of these voters will be left out.
Even with robust public outreach and education, the transition to vote-by-mail is likely to be much easier for affluent voters than for other groups. When Massachusetts rolled out early voting during the 2016 general election, more than a million residents participated for the first statewide early vote. While nearly half of voters in high-income, high-turnout suburbs like Carlisle and Ipswich cast ballots early, adoption was much lower in racially diverse cities like Chelsea (16 percent) and Springfield (13 percent). The transition to vote-by-mail may have the same uneven rollout.
In addition to implementing vote-by-mail options, Massachusetts should consider the following reforms to strengthen its in-person voting systems:
Keep neighborhood polling locations open. Local officials should resist the temptation to reduce the number of polling locations. There will be some polling locations that are no longer appropriate for use, such as at senior centers. But these polling locations should be moved — not closed — so that the total number of polling sites does not go down.
Fewer in-person voting sites makes it harder for voters to get to the polls and creates longer lines, bigger crowds, and a higher risk of spreading the coronavirus when they get there. Secretary of State Bill Galvin should issue guidance to local officials on reconfiguring voting sites to allow for social distancing, opening additional sites to reduce traffic, line management, supplies, and hand sanitation. Massachusetts should also establish curbside voting, which works well in other states.
Recruit new poll workers and protect them. With the ongoing threat from coronavirus, Massachusetts needs a new approach to recruiting poll workers. A 2017 report from the US Election Assistance Commission found that two-thirds of jurisdictions struggled to recruit the workers they needed. More than half were over 60. In Wisconsin’s April primary, critical shortages of poll workers forced hundreds of polling locations to close. Milwaukee, a city of 600,000, dropped from 180 polling locations to just five, resulting in hours-long lines. Countless voters put their health at risk or were excluded entirely.
No polling location in Massachusetts should risk closing due to a shortage of workers. A bill filed by Representative Tami Gouveia of the 14th Middlesex District would require the secretary of state to set up a statewide portal to recruit and train new poll workers. Galvin should partner with civic groups, businesses, high schools, and colleges to enlist poll workers and ensure that poll workers have enough personal protective equipment, pens, and cleaning supplies.
Expand early vote to weekends and evenings. The best way to protect in-person voting and to make social distancing easier is to spread out the period of time when voters can vote. Galvin has wisely proposed expanding early voting to the 18 days before the November election, including hours on two weekends, and seven days before the primary. To make sure that early voting is a real option for all voters, this proposal should be expanded to include evening hours.
The state can make the election safe and accessible for every voter. It needs to plan for it now.
Quentin Palfrey is chair of the Voter Protection Corps. Mike Firestone served as chief of staff to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and as an assistant attorney general.