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OPINION

State needs automatic vote-by-mail system

Given the coronavirus, a universal automatic vote-by-mail system for both the September primary and the November general elections makes sense.

It remains largely unknown just how many people contracted the coronavirus while waiting in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee on  April 7.
It remains largely unknown just how many people contracted the coronavirus while waiting in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee on April 7.Morry Gash/Associated Press

The recent botched election in Wisconsin, in which some 9,000 requested ballots were never delivered and many more were sent to voters too late to be counted, serves as a dual warning to Massachusetts. First, the state cannot afford to wait to preserve residents’ right to vote with a robust vote-by-mail system. Second, the state cannot rely on an opt-in system where voters and local clerks must bear the added burden of mail-in ballot requests. Like everything else in the coronavirus pandemic, this is a risk calculation. The risk that ballots — in Wisconsin’s case, thousands of them — might go unsent or uncounted must be prevented.

The state must move quickly to enact universal, automatic vote-by-mail legislation. I recently filed the 2020 Vote By Mail Act, which Representative Adrian Madaro co-filed in the House. The bill calls for a robust automatic vote-by-mail system in both the primary and general statewide elections, preserves in-person voting, provides for personal protective equipment for poll workers, and makes Election Day in November a permanent holiday.

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A universal, automatic vote-by-mail system for both the September primary and the November general election makes sense. Any legislation that reverts to an opt-in ballot-by-request-only system risks creating an undue burden on voters as well as local clerks and insufficiently reducing crowds at polling places. After the recent election in Wisconsin, we have a real-world example of how request-only vote-by-mail systems can fail.

The 2020 Vote By Mail Act maintains in-person voting at polling places on Election Day to allow for greater voting access, while making a few changes to ensure the safety of voters and poll workers. So many of our dedicated election workers are over 65 and therefore more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The legislation requires that the state provide adequate personal protective equipment to all election workers, for their safety as well as the safety of voters.

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The legislation also establishes November Election Day as a new state holiday. Many people already have a tough time making it to the polls in person and often vote at the same times, especially before and after work. During a pandemic, it is critical to reduce large clusters of people showing up at the polls simultaneously, for the sake of everyone’s health. Making Election Day a holiday gives voters the widest flexibility and ensures polling locations at schools or town offices won’t have non-election-related traffic on Election Day.

A recent study by The Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University predicted that voting by mail in November may cost up to $30 million. Fortunately, Massachusetts already has at its disposal tens of millions of dollars of federal funds through the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The Commonwealth can use these funds for technology upgrades to support and implement voting by mail, including ballot-tracking software to ensure votes are secure. Voting is one of the most important functions of our democracy, and it deserves our investment.

During this time of such uncertainty, we must act quickly to enact legislation that automatically gets ballots directly into the hands of registered voters, making it as easy as possible for them to exercise the right to vote and avoid the health risk of large crowds at polling places. As we try to balance practicality with safety, the 2020 Vote by Mail Act is the best way to secure votes without creating extra red tape and unnecessary burdens for voters or clerks.

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State Senator Becca Rausch represents the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex District.