Massachusetts residents wholly embraced the state’s mail-in voting experiment in 2020. This year will be threaded with debate about how to keep it.
Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, a Needham Democrat who last year pushed to overhaul voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said she is filing a package of proposed laws Monday that would make the option of mail-in voting permanent in Massachusetts, offering the first of what will likely be many similar bills in the coming months.
Rausch’s 12-page bill is expected to include language that would automatically enroll those who cast ballots by mail in both the state primary and general election last year within a newly created “permanent mail voter status,” ensuring they receive ballots for every eligible election without having to submit new requests.
The bill would also set new standards for how many ballot drop boxes towns or cities would have to set up for elections.
“This is now a tried-and-true method of voting in Massachusetts,” Rausch said of mail-in voting. “Never has there been a more important time to advance . . . a broad spectrum of election reforms and shore up access to the ballot.”
The $45.9 billion state budget that Governor Charlie Baker signed in December included language that extended the option of mail-in voting for state or municipal elections to this year, but only through March 31.
Others within the Legislature, which started its new session Wednesday, have expressed support for keeping mail-in voting, as has Secretary of State William F. Galvin, after more than 40 percent of the record 3.6 million people who voted in November’s election did so by mail.
But the details of how to do so are far from settled.
Galvin said in November that he intended to form a working group with local clerks to explore the best ways to enshrine changes in state law. The Brighton Democrat was also at odds with Rausch and other lawmakers last spring, after they called for the state to mail every registered voter a ballot for the fall elections.
The law Baker ultimately signed instead called for the state to first send every voter an application for a mail-in ballot.
Rausch again is proposing that ballots go directly to many voters, arguing that her bill would also push the state to upgrade its central list of voters, cutting down on the potential for ballots landing in homes where a registered voter no longer lives. Those considered a “permanent mail voter” could also opt out by filing a request with Galvin’s office, according to her bill.
But while Baker, too, offered support for keeping mail-in voting, he has indicated he would not back automatically sending voters ballots without applying for them. “I think that’s a really dumb way to do this,” the Republican governor said in October.
Before the expanded voting law, Massachusetts limited absentee voting to voters who are disabled, would be out of town on Election Day, or have religious beliefs preventing them from voting at their normal polling place.
It’s unlikely the Legislature would approve a comprehensive change to the state’s voting laws before the end of March, when the expanded mail-in voting option ends. It’s possible lawmakers could choose to temporarily extend the law, as they did within the budget.
Keeping mail-in voting isn’t the only change Rausch is seeking.
Her bill also includes a proposal she’s pushed since joining the Legislature in 2019: moving the state’s September primary to June.