Mail-in voting — now well under way in Massachusetts — has become a Rubik’s Cube of electoral math, complicated by a brazen effort by the Trump administration to undermine the United States Postal Service. A key to solving the puzzle is making sure that people who cast their ballots in time have their votes counted.
The state’s highest court has been asked to weigh in as the clock winds down on the Sept. 1 primary on whether to give voters more time for their mailed ballots to actually reach city or town halls. And, if that does happen, what the impact will be on the general election timetable.
The suit, filed on behalf of Fourth Congressional District candidate Becky Grossman and heard Monday by an emergency sitting of the Supreme Judicial Court, questions the provision of the state’s new mail-in voting law that ballots must be received by Sept. 1, not simply postmarked by then.
In contrast, general election ballots need only be postmarked by Election Day and received within the following week.
“This deadline is irrational,” argued attorney Jeff Robbins on behalf of Grossman. “It’s inherently absurd.”
Assistant Attorney General Anne Sterman, arguing on behalf of Secretary of State Bill Galvin, told the court that, as of Monday, 97 percent of requests for mail-in ballots have already been processed by that office and Galvin, in an interview, added that 40 percent of those ballots have already been returned.
But he also argues that adding 10 more days to the post-primary calendar, as Grossman (along with Eighth Congressional District candidate Robbie Goldstein, who filed an amicus brief in the case) demands, could delay the printing of general election ballots. Federal law requires those ballots be available by Sept. 19 this year for the military and Americans living abroad — a fact noted in a brief filed by US Attorney Andrew Lelling.
But as Robbins told the court, both New Hampshire and Rhode Island are holding their primaries on Sept. 8 and somehow will get the job of printing those military ballots done by the same deadline. He called the issue a red herring. And his brief notes that during at least a dozen previous election cycles there were fewer than the 63 days leeway Galvin says he needs this year. In 2018, Galvin managed to meet deadlines even though he had to wait for the results of a recount in the Merrimack Valley.
The real issue will be whether the court decides this matter is of such weight that it becomes necessary to substitute its wisdom for that of the Legislature, which drafted the law and set the timetable.
But the Legislature’s clear intent was to provide a safe alternative for the hundreds of thousands of voters who, fearing a pandemic, wanted to be able to vote without ever setting foot in a polling place.
There’s a clear need: Data provided to the Globe showed that, as of last week, as many as 90 percent of mail-in ballots that had been requested had not yet been received by election officials in some cities and towns, including Boston. Extending the window for mail-in ballots to be received in city and town halls around the Commonwealth isn’t too much to ask in these most perilous of times.
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