The House and Senate are poised this week to approve compromise early voting and vote-by-mail legislation that should pave the way for a major expansion of options ahead of the 2020 election to encourage participation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All six lawmakers appointed to find a compromise on the bill signed onto a report Monday. Representative John Lawn, the lead House negotiator on the bill, said he anticipates a vote of the full House on the final bill Tuesday while the Senate plans to take it up Thursday, according to a spokesperson for the Senate president’s office.
The House and Senate versions of the bill instruct the secretary of state’s office to mail every voter an application to request a mail-in ballot for the primaries on Sept. 1 and the general election on Nov. 3. The goal, lawmakers have said, is to continue in-person voting but to allow voters to cast their votes early if they wish or to avoid the polls altogether if they feel unsafe because of virus transmission risks.
The bill also for the first time in Massachusetts creates an early voting window before the statewide primary, and expands early voting before the general election. The state’s in-person early voting period for the general election runs Oct. 17-30 and Aug. 22-28 for the primaries. The mail-in early voting period will begin as soon as local clerks receive all the necessary materials.
The legislation went to conference committee June 18 after the two branches diverged on application mailing methods and limitations to when local clerks could change polling locations. The final deal would have registered voters receive two applications to request mail-in ballots: one will be mailed by July 15 for the primary election, and another in September for those who want to vote by mail in the general election.
The conference committee opted against a Senate plan to use the voter information guides that are sent every election by Secretary of State William Galvin to households around the state as a vehicle to deliver one of the applications.
“We’re trying to have it be as clear as possible so people aren’t calling clerks and getting confused,” Lawn said.
The six members of the committee also agreed to let local clerks change the location of a polling station up to 20 days before the election, which reflects what was in the Senate version of the bill. The idea is to give election officials some flexibility to respond if there were to be an outbreak of COVID-19 at a school or in another building that doubles as a polling location.
The new legislation negotiated by the committee includes language that directs local officials to evaluate and report on whether changing a polling place would have a “disparate adverse impact” on access to the polls on the basis of race, national origin, disability, income, or age. Officials would need to make the report publicly available online and in the clerk’s office three days prior to changing the polling location.
House and Senate leaders also agreed on a section mandating that the secretary of state create an online portal for voters to request an early or absentee ballot for the general election and, if feasible, for the primaries. The legislation gives the office no later than Oct. 1 to implement an operational system.
“If the secretary of state can create the online portal in a timely manner that will help to reduce the clerks’ workload. Ideally, by Sept. 1 although I know that will be hard,” Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said. “We do have other portals in Massachusetts where voters can access their personal information ... so this is just another function that would be added to those online portals that already exist. So hopefully not a bridge too far.”
“The legislation that the conference committee agreed on isn’t perfect, but it does what it needs to — help brace our elections for COVID-19,” Alex Psilakis, Policy and Communications Manager at MassVOTE, said in a statement. “Though we are disappointed that explicit protections were not implemented to protect polling places in low-income communities and communities of color, the legislation still takes strong steps to not only expand voting via mail and in-person, but educate voters as to how our elections will function this fall.”
A recent Suffolk University poll for WGBH News, the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and MassLive found that just 24.8 percent of voters expect to vote by mail this fall, while 61.4 percent said they would vote in person and almost 12 percent said they were undecided.