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Voters, advocacy groups ask SJC to order secretary of state to send out mail-in ballot applications quickly

Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Voters of color and public interest groups on Monday asked the state’s highest court to order Secretary of State William F. Galvin to comply with a new law requiring that he send all Massachusetts voters a mail-in ballot application this Wednesday.

Galvin said his office was working hard to get the mailing out. He said it was a complex process that would be done within days. “We never said we’re not doing the mailing,” he said. “It was always our intention to put it out as soon as possible.”

Common Cause, MassVOTE, and seven Black, Latino, Asian, and elderly voters filed the lawsuit, asking the Supreme Judicial Court asking to approve a writ of mandamus, instructing Galvin to implement the law, enacted July 2, to assure maximum voter participation during the COVID-19 pandemic.


“Immediate relief is necessary to prevent the Secretary from undermining the rule of law and to ensure that the Commonwealth’s citizens may safely vote in the upcoming elections, despite the ongoing viral pandemic,‘' the group Lawyers for Civil Rights and attorneys from the Ropes & Gray law firm said in court papers.

Seven voters of color from Greater Boston, some of whom are elderly and are housebound to protect themselves from the coronavirus, which has killed more than 8,000 Massachusetts residents, see the mail-in ballot as the only way they can safely vote this year, the lawyers said.

“The individual Petitioners typify those voters who will be most impacted if the Secretary is allowed to flout the law: low-income voters, voters of color, and elderly voters, all of whom are most likely to be disenfranchised if the law’s requirements are not met,‘' the attorneys argued.

In a telephone interview, Galvin said the controversy is “no controversy at all.” He noted the law was passed on July 2 and said the mailing was “very complex” because it involves sending more than 4 million pieces of mail to voters with prepaid-postage and pre-addressed cards the voters will then send to their local election offices to request mail-in ballots.


And the names of people who have died need to be removed from the list before the mailing can go out, he said.

He said the House and Senate were nearing approval of $5 million in funding. In the meantime, he said, Governor Charlie Baker had “stepped up to provide us some bridge money.”

“There’s a lot of pieces to this that have to go down,” he said. “It’s made all the more difficult if you don’t have the money.” He estimated the ballot-application mailings, one before the primary and one before the general election, will cost $4 million each.

The activists contend that Galvin has $8 million in federal CARES Act money from the national COVID-19 relief package to pay for some of the mailings and does not need to wait for state money. “Public reports establish that numerous other states are currently using CARES Act funds precisely for the purpose that the Secretary claims is impermissible,‘' the attorneys wrote.

Galvin said the federal government has “clearly told us” that the federal money cannot be used to send out ballot applications, though it can be used for the mail-in ballots themselves and for other increased expenses that are expected from holding an election during the pandemic, including, among other things, machines to count the mail-in ballots and personal protective equipment for poll workers.


Galvin suggested the mailings could go out just a few days late, saying, “There’s nothing magic about the 15th of July at all.”

The primary election is seven weeks from Tuesday. “I have a lot to do in the next seven weeks to get ready for this,” Galvin said. “The point is, this election is going to require a lot of effort.”

John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him @JREbosglobe.