The Massachusetts House on Thursday passed a provision that would permanently allow every registered voter to cast a ballot by mail in state primaries, general elections, and some municipal races, extending what had been embraced as a pandemic-era option.
Lawmakers tacked the measure onto a supplemental spending bill that easily passed the House on Thursday. The vote on the amendment, filed Wednesday, fell almost exclusively along party lines, with all 30 Republicans in the House opposing it, along with two Democrats.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who previously said lawmakers would move to codify expanded voting by mail, said before the vote that he “conceptually supports” the proposal, bolstering its passage.
The sudden emergence of the amendment puts the House somewhat at odds with the Senate. While Democratic leaders in both chambers support continuing to make voting by mail available to all voters, the Senate on Thursday passed a separate bill that would extend the measure temporarily to mid-December, signaling senators were still mapping out a more permanent option.
A record 3.6 million ballots were cast in Massachusetts in November’s general election, with more voters embracing mail-in ballots — nearly 42 percent — than any other option.
Before lawmakers passed a law amid the pandemic allowing every registered voter to cast an absentee ballot by mail, state law had limited absentee balloting to those who had specific reasons for not being able to make it to the polls, including if they are disabled or would be out of town on Election Day.
Similar to last year’s law, the House amendment — filed by state Representative Daniel J. Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat and House chairman of the Committee on Election Laws — would direct the secretary of state’s office to mail every voter in the state’s central registry an application to vote early by mail no later than 45 days before an election.
The option would be available for the biennial state election, state primaries, and any city or town election that’s “held at the same time” as the state votes, according to the proposal.
Voters would then be able to submit an early ballot by mail, in-person to a local clerk, or via a ballot drop box before polls close on Election Day. For a presidential election, any ballots received by 5 p.m. three days after the election would also be counted so long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
The state would also have to create an online system where voters could request an early or absentee ballot without providing a signature. The measure would direct election officials to include a vote-by-mail application when someone registers to vote or changes their voter registration address.
In addition, Ryan’s amendment would mandate that in-person early voting for a state primary run for seven days, from the second Saturday before the election through the close of business on the Friday before Election Day.
Lawmakers had previously extended the mail-in option to March, and then again to the end of this month after municipal leaders lobbied them to keep it in place through the spring, when hundreds of local elections were scheduled. Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, in February praised mail-in voting as a “secure” method that helped boost turnout in some places last year.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin had proposed implementing broad-based voting by mail and same-day voter registration. Currently residents are required to register at least 20 days before an election to vote. (Ryan’s amendment does not include language creating same-day registration.)
A separate proposal from Senator Rebecca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, called for automatically enrolling those who cast ballots by mail in both the state primary and general election last year within a newly created “permanent mail voter status.”
Governor Charlie Baker last year also offered support for keeping mail-in voting, though he has indicated he would not back automatically sending voters ballots without their applying for them. “I think that’s a really dumb way to do this,” the Republican governor said in October.
The stance puts him at odds with his own state Republican party, which on Wednesday passed separate resolutions opposing universal mail-in voting while also calling for the state to require “proof of identification” to vote in Massachusetts.
Currently, 18 states ask for a photo ID to cast a ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 14 states, including Massachusetts, do not require voters to present any documents to cast a ballot.
State Representative Bradley Jones, the House minority leader, spoke against the vote-by-mail amendment, largely on the grounds that the amendment passed less than 24 hours after it emerged.
“You know this is not the right way to do this,” the North Reading Republican said from the House floor. “We should be better than this on something so important.”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.