As the current occupant of the White House continues to rail against mythical voting fraud and election officials in Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona are forced to seek police protection, Massachusetts seems an oasis of electoral sanity. This year’s primary and general elections — which expanded the options for early voting and voting by mail — set records for voter turnout.
There’s just one glitch. The law that allowed early voting in the primary election and no-excuse absentee voting by mail for the first time was a one-year-only pandemic special. To continue the state’s foray into the brave new world of 21st-century voting will require new and permanent legislation in 2021.
Lawmakers will have to do this all over again.
“I don’t want to lose the momentum of that success,” Secretary of State Bill Galvin told the Globe editorial board. “No one out there is saying no. . . . But while we have consensus, I want to get this done.”
And the Legislature will be up against a deadline. The original bill passed during the summer is due to expire on Dec. 31. An amendment to the state budget now on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk would extend the expanded voting options to March 31, to cover any special elections or municipal elections between now and then. (Newton is anticipating one early in 2021.) Assuming Baker signs on to the extension, the Legislature will get some breathing room to work on a permanent fix — but not much.
The pandemic provided a rationale for Massachusetts to make long-overdue changes — especially allowing no-excuse absentee voting. Those changes proved enormously popular with voters. While the record turnout of 76 percent was no surprise, Galvin said, the fact that nearly two-thirds of those ballots were cast either early (23 percent) or by mail (42 percent) was a success by any standard.
About 0.8 percent of absentee ballots — about 20,000 — were rejected, but Galvin noted many of those were rejected because the voter mailed a ballot and then, concerned about the mail, decided to vote early in person before the mail-in ballot even arrived. Some were rejected for lack of a signature — an issue that might be mitigated with a design change, Galvin thought. But even better, any new law could also require voters be notified if a signature is missing or there’s a discrepancy — something 18 other states already do.
Urban areas tended to have a smaller share of mail-in voters than suburban towns, with Boston at 38 percent mail-in, Worcester at 39 percent, and Springfield at 32 percent, while Acton had 66 percent mail-in votes and Newton 57 percent.
Senator Barry Finegold, cochair of the Election Laws Committee, and committed to seeing the law made permanent, noted in an interview that such disparities could be remedied with a bit more outreach. “We need to do a better job of educating people that voting by mail is safe,” he said. “We as elected leaders want to have as much voter participation as possible.”
Preprocessing of mail-in ballots (not tabulating them, but simply getting them ready to be counted), specifically permitted in the 2020 legislation, made for a smoother election night in Massachusetts — something states like Michigan and Pennsylvania didn’t have the advantage of doing due to resistance from their state legislators. It should be an essential part of the next law.
Still, there will be details to work out. For example, should there be early voting in every municipal election or should that be a local option?
“Maybe you want it for a town override vote for a new school,” Galvin noted, but not for every town office election.
And who gets to pay for it all? This year, many of the additional expenses associated with those special mailings were funded with federal dollars from the CARES Act. Next year the state and its localities will be on their own.
There will probably be another debate here about whether simply to mail out ballots to all registered voters — difficult to do for Massachusetts primary elections, in which unenrolled voters can choose which party’s ballot to cast — or mail out ballot applications, as Massachusetts successfully did this year. Why mess with that success — especially if those ballot applications come with the same prepaid postcards to local election departments?
This state — and its local election officials — managed to adapt to a vast expansion of the electoral process in an incredibly short period of time and under exceedingly difficult circumstances, what everyone hopes will be a once-in-a-lifetime event. There is no turning back now. There is only moving forward with a system geared to ensure voting is safe and secure well into the future.
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