After a long delay in counting Boston’s mail-in ballots for September’s municipal election, Secretary of State William F. Galvin is urging lawmakers to allow three days to count ballots that are submitted or postmarked by the 8 p.m. deadline for the Nov. 2 election, but the Legislature may not be able to act in time.
“The problem is, as we’re now [just] weeks from the election, is getting a piece of legislation all the way through — that is to say, in the House, Senate, governor, and signed — is not as easy as it sounds,” Galvin said in an interview.
The Legislature moved quickly in July to allow no-excuse mail-in voting in this fall’s elections after lawmakers missed the June 30 deadline and local elections briefly were forced to switch back to pre-pandemic rules, under which voters could cast absentee ballots by mail only with a valid reason.
The bill they passed renewed voting by mail without an excuse until Dec. 15, but it required that ballots be counted on Election Night for both the preliminary and the general elections. That was a challenge on Boston’s Preliminary Election Night in September, when poll workers had to count 7,000 last-minute mail-in and early vote ballots from drop boxes — double what officials had expected.
Galvin said it’s necessary to have a tight time limit in preliminary elections, because ballots for the general election must be printed quickly after votes are tallied, but there’s no such constraint on the November vote.
“There’s no reason for it to apply to the [general] election . . . because we won’t be printing another ballot after the election. Whoever wins the election wins the election,” Galvin said. “What we don’t want to happen is people [to] become victimized by the mail problems that are real and through no fault of their own . . . don’t get counted.”
Now Galvin is running up against another time limit — the election will take place Nov. 2, and his proposal isn’t yet before the Legislature. It may be too late to introduce a new bill and get it passed before voters head to the polls, Galvin said, so his best shot could be adding his plan as a rider to a bill that is nearing passage. But he hasn’t yet found a bill that will work.
Galvin said he had spoken to legislative leaders, and they are broadly supportive of allowing three days for November vote counting, but it is unclear whether the proposal can be introduced and approved in time, even with their support.
Representatives for House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka did not respond to requests for comment.
Election observers said other states have allowed three days for counting as mail-in voting became more prevalent during the coronavirus pandemic. Massachusetts did so for last year’s general election, and is likely to eventually adopt the three-day policy permanently through a bill currently making its way through the Legislature. But that bill is unlikely to become law before Nov. 2.
“It’s a policy that’s proven to work,” said Alex Psilakis, a spokesman for MassVOTE, a statewide nonpartisan group working to increase voter participation. “It’s a perfectly secure policy, and it’s just smart. A lot of people rely on the Postal Service.”
Stephen D. Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University who studies elections and public opinion, said recent studies of elections in other states have shown that mail-in ballots can take up to a week to reach election officials, though most arrived within the first three days.
“A lot of states had to deal with this problem this year,” he said. “Because of COVID, there was a huge spike up in absentee voting — and also delays in the mail. Just having that extra few days helped a lot.”
Ansolabehere said the extra time would likely make it easier to count votes efficiently on Election Night — possibly helping avoid the issues Boston voters saw on Sept. 14 — because it would “take some of the pressure off the local administrators in handling ballots.”
“In the few days before the election, that’s when it’s crunch time for making sure precincts are set up, filling gaps where there are poll workers who can’t make it. . . . So it’s a pretty hectic time,” he said.
Galvin stressed that if a law is passed, it will apply not just to Boston but to the entire state, including communities such as Lowell, where city councilors will be elected by district for the first time this year, which could slow counting.
“That three days would help … protect the integrity of the election,” Galvin said. “And it would hopefully speed up the return of results on Election Night.”
Psilakis said many communities have no ballot drop boxes, so voters unable to go to the polls must rely on the mail. And the extra time would help vote counters in places like Holyoke, where local mail is routed through a regional postal center in Hartford before being returned to the city, slowing delivery times.
“Just giving these three extra days could provide a lot of people a little more peace of mind,” he said. “Which I think is really important, especially because these elections usually see the lowest voter turnout, [though] they have the highest impact on a person’s day-to-day life.”