Amid the ongoing public health crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state needs to make sure residents can vote as safely and easily as possible. Recent elections in other states underscore the urgency of taking proactive measures here in Massachusetts to protect our democratic process. In Georgia, voters had to wait up to seven hours to cast a ballot in their state primary after local election authorities closed dozens of polling locations amid safety concerns and accusations of voter suppression. Moreover, many voters who requested absentee ballots did not receive them in time. Voters in Kentucky and Wisconsin endured similar challenges. These burdens fell disproportionately on Black and brown communities in urban areas, yet another instance in America’s shameful history of racist voter suppression.
In response, Massachusetts has to rise to the occasion and safeguard fundamental democratic rights ahead of the primary on Sept. 1 and the general election on Nov. 3. That’s why Governor Charlie Baker just signed a comprehensive bill to protect voter safety and make it easier to vote in 2020.
For the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, Massachusetts will allow early-voting in both the primary and general election. Additionally, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin will send out applications for requesting a mail-in-ballot to all registered voters. Furthermore, polling locations will adopt enhanced safety measures for in-person voting on Election Day, Nov. 3. Overall, these three important reforms empower voters to choose which method works best for them: voting safely in person during early-voting windows, voting by mail, or voting safely in person on Election Day.
Expanded early voting. Lengthy early-voting windows will make it more convenient for people to vote and will help prevent overcrowding at polling locations. The new law establishes a week of early voting for the primary election (Aug. 22-28) and two weeks of early voting for the general election (Oct. 17-30).
A secure vote-by-mail system. The new law enables all eligible voters to vote by mail without compromising the security of our election process. By July 15, Galvin will mail all registered voters a form to request a mail-in ballot for the upcoming primary election. In order to receive a ballot in the mail, voters will have to turn in the application form by Aug. 26. Voters can mail their completed ballot, drop it in a secure dropbox, or turn it in at their local polling location, as long as it is received by local election officials by the time polls close at 8 p.m. on Primary Day.
For the general election, Galvin will send out mail-in ballot applications by Sept. 14, and voters will need to turn in the application form by Oct. 28, in order to receive a ballot in the mail. By Oct. 1, Galvin will also set up an online portal where registered voters can request a mail-in ballot for the general election. Voters will have to postmark their mail-in ballot by the time polls close on Election Day, and the ballot will have to be received by Nov. 6 at 5 p.m. in order to count. For both the primary and the general election, the mail-in application form and the actual ballot will have prepaid postage, so there will be no cost to voters.
Safe and accessible in-person voting on Election Day. To protect public health, polling locations will require social distancing, the use of personal protective equipment, and frequent sanitization. While it’s understandable that cities and towns might have to adjust polling locations because of the pandemic, we need to ensure that these changes do not restrict voting access — especially to communities of color. Accordingly, the new law requires that local officials provide public notice and hold a recorded vote at least 20 days prior to any polling location change. Officials will have to provide a report on whether any location change would adversely impact voting access on the basis of race, national origin, disability, income, or age. Massachusetts will not tolerate voter suppression in any form.
These common-sense reforms aim to protect voters, increase participation, and bolster the integrity of our democracy. The legislation was the product of a truly collaborative policy-making process, with state legislators working in conjunction with grass-roots advocacy organizations and local election officials to find common ground. The bill passed the House and the Senate with nearly unanimous support last week before it was signed into law Monday. In the months ahead, the state will continue to support local officials as they tackle administrative difficulties and work to count ballots quickly. Massachusetts will steadfastly uphold our shared democratic values and maintain public health at the same time.
Senator Barry Finegold and Representative John Lawn are the chairs of the Joint Committee on Election Laws in the Massachusetts Legislature.