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Mass. is about to pass a huge vote-by-mail expansion. But will our elections infrastructure be ready?

Elections will be very different this year, with many more voters skipping the polling places.
Elections will be very different this year, with many more voters skipping the polling places.Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP

A bill that would allow every registered voter in Massachusetts to cast their ballot by mail this year is on the verge of final legislative approval, offering what lawmakers and advocates say are sweeping but necessary changes to help ensure votes aren’t smothered by the coronavirus pandemic.

But its quickening path to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk is giving way to another daunting reality: reinventing an elections system rooted in a piecemeal, localized process that officials fear could be inundated by the fresh demand for absentee voting.

The compromise legislation this week cleared the House, and is expected to pass the Senate on Thursday, leaving only a few final procedural steps before heading to Baker. He has not explicitly said whether he supports the type of expansion outlined in the bill, and his office said Wednesday that he would review it when it gets to his desk.

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Under the 20-page bill, Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office would send each of the state’s nearly 4.6 million registered voters an application to request a mail-in ballot for both the Sept. 1 state primary and the Nov. 3 general election, essentially allowing everyone to become an absentee voter.

Galvin’s office is also tasked with creating an online portal for accepting vote-by-mail ballot applications for the November election, and the bill would establish, for the first time, a seven-day early voting period ahead of the state primary while allowing 14 days for early voting ahead of the general election.

Under the bill, voters could still cast a ballot in person on Election Day. But the goal, lawmakers say, is to offer a slew of options for those who are uneasy about crowding into a polling location as the threat of the coronavirus looms over the state and country.

“We don’t want one single voter to feel disenfranchised because of COVID-19,” said state Senator Barry R. Finegold, an Andover Democrat and the chamber’s lead negotiator on the legislation.

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For all its dramatic changes, the bill would only apply to elections in 2020. Massachusetts otherwise is one of 16 states that require an excuse to obtain an absentee ballot, with state law limiting them to voters who are disabled, will be out of town on Election Day, or have religious beliefs preventing them from voting at their normal polling place.

Overhauling elections, even in the short term, shifts a new burden onto a system some officials say is ill-equipped to handle a deluge of vote-by-mail applications.

While overseen by Galvin, the gears of elections largely turn within individual town and city clerks’ offices, some of which rely on as few as two full-time employees. And in nearly all cases, they’re simultaneously handling vital records, dog licenses, and other municipal tasks that churn through town halls year-round.

“How do I put this in a nice way? Our current system, as designed, is not set up for the volume that we’re currently dealing with, with mail-in voting,” said Taylor White, the town clerk in Sandwich, where nearly half of those who voted in a special state Senate race in May did so by mail. From data entry to stuffing envelopes, “it was extremely burdensome on pretty much all ends of it,” White said.

“My fear is the system may get overloaded if a vast majority of people choose the mail-in system under the way it’s currently set up,” he said.

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Absentee ballots have typically accounted for a sliver of votes, including just 3 percent of ballots cast during the 2018 state election — though not even all of those would have been mailed in, state officials say.

Now, one in four registered voters in a Suffolk University poll released last week said they plan to vote by mail in upcoming elections.

And during a slate of special legislative elections this spring, the share was even higher in some cases, thanks to a law allowing “no excuse” mail-in balloting for local and state elections held before June 30. The race for the Senate seat south of Boston saw 44 percent of the 20,000 votes arrive via mail. Two weeks later, just over half of the 5,700 votes in a House race were mailed in.

The pivot to widespread absentee voting has had consequences elsewhere.

Amid the explosion of more than 700,000 absentee requests in New York City, thousands hadn’t received a ballot with just days before the primary election last month, and even now, officials are expecting a long wait for results. In Kentucky, it took a week for Amy McGrath to be declared the winner in a US Senate primary election.

For the September primary, headlined by the Senate race between Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, Massachusetts elections officials face a tight deadline to verify results in time for sending military personnel and voters living overseas general election ballots.

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“The bottom line is, it’s clearly going to be an administrative challenge,” said Galvin, whose office must send the first round of vote-by-mail applications by July 15 under the bill. Galvin used an example of one-quarter of voters in a 20,000-person town choosing to vote by mail, a shift that would mean processing thousands of applications in a matter of weeks.

“That’s a lot of paper,” he said. “And it’s going to cost money, at a time when money is going to be tight.”

The legislation does not specifically dedicate any additional funds to running elections. A supplemental spending bill that could surface Thursday in the Senate dedicates an extra $5 million for election costs, but Galvin estimates that the demands of the primary election alone could eat up $4 million.

That’s likely to leave towns and cities juggling two problems: balancing the extra work for elections — including early voting on the weekends mandated by the bill — while simultaneously weighing deep cuts across local government wrought by the pandemic.

Beth Huang, director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, said she’s concerned that “tonnage” of work facing election workers could have other ramifications. The legislation, for example, includes a requirement that local officials send a vote-by-mail application with acknowledgement notices to voters who change their address or register after the cutoff date for receiving one through Galvin’s office.

That safety net, however, isn’t foolproof, she said, and could create equity issues, particularly in smaller cities with lean elections staffs.

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“In this kind of piecemeal fashion that relies on already overburdened officials, there will be some voters who slip through the cracks,” Huang said. “They’re going to be renters, people of color, and naturalized citizens.”

Lawmakers say they’re cognizant of the extra burden put on local officials. The legislation, for example, allows clerks to process mail-in ballots as they arrive to avoid an Election Day backup, said state Representative John J. Lawn, the House’s lead negotiator on the bill.

“We have confidence in the [vote-by-mail] system,” said Lawn, a Watertown Democrat. “What we’re very aware of is the amount of mail that city and town clerks will have to process. That’s a huge concern.”

Nancy J. Talbot, Ware’s town clerk and the president of the Massachusetts Town Clerk Association, said her hope is that should voters cast a ballot by mail, they don’t wait until the last minute — a potentially difficult ask.

“We’re going to be inundated with applications, I’m sure,” said Talbot, who has one full-time employee in a clerk’s office serving 6,300 registered voters. “As a society, we want everything instantaneously. There’s going to probably [have to] be a little more patience and understanding for the results.”


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