Massachusetts’ temporary law allowing all voters to cast a ballot by mail is set to end next month without a permanent replacement on the books, leaving little clarity on when, or in what form, a concept with broad support among voters and on Beacon Hill could again emerge in 2022.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano said the chamber is not expected to take up sweeping election legislation before lawmakers on Wednesday conclude formal lawmaking for the year. It also was unclear whether the Legislature could seek to again extend a pandemic-era voting law that allows expanded voting by mail before it expires on Dec. 15, though one Senate leader said Tuesday that option wasn’t currently “on the table.”
The inaction would not completely kill efforts to reshape how Massachusetts residents could vote. Lawmakers have until the end of July to finish formal lawmaking for their two-year session, and House leaders suggested there’s not an immediate need to keep the vote-by-mail option in place.
But advocates and officials warned that allowing the temporary law to lapse without a stopgap or permanent measure in place could both confuse voters and potentially handicap turnout for municipal elections and at least one special election approaching in the new year.
“I just don’t understand why they would let this lapse,” Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top election official, said of lawmakers. “There’s been no substantive problems with vote by mail. The idea that you would deprive people the right to vote this way doesn’t make any sense.”
Massachusetts has been operating under a temporary law first passed in the summer of 2020 that allows any voter to cast a ballot by mail, an option that previously was limited to those who are disabled, would be out of town on Election Day, or have religious beliefs preventing them from voting at their normal polling place.
Voters navigating the COVID-19 pandemic have largely embraced the option. Nearly 42 percent of the record 3.6 million ballots cast during the November 2020 general election were mail-in ballots. So too were nearly 41,000, or 28 percent, of the ballots cast in this month’s Boston mayoral election.
Legislative leaders roundly support making the option permanent, too. The Senate in October passed a package of election law changes, known as the VOTES Act, which included allowing any voters to cast a ballot by mail and residents to register to vote on Election Day itself.
The House months earlier passed its own language making voting by mail permanent in state primaries, general elections, and some municipal races, though Senate and House leaders later agreed instead to temporarily extend it to December — the second time since last year they pushed its expiration date.
But the current expiration date is now less than a month away. Asked Monday whether the House would tackle the Senate’s election law bill this week, Mariano told the State House News Service that the chamber had no plans to do so, describing it as “something that can wait until well into next year before it has any impact.”
Mariano has publicly backed expanding voting by mail permanently, calling it a “secure” option. But the House and Governor Charlie Baker have been cooler to embracing other aspects of the Senate’s elections bill, namely establishing same-day voter registration.
“We’ll find a vehicle” for passing it, Mariano said Monday of voting by mail, according to audio provided by the Quincy Democrat’s office. “We’ve already voted on [the issue], people know where they are on this.”
Aides to Mariano did not directly address questions Tuesday of whether the House, in lieu of a permanent measure, would instead pursue another temporary extension. State Representative Daniel J. Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat who co-chairs the committee on election laws, said if lawmakers did, it could happen later in an informal session, which are often sparsely attended but where any dissenting vote could kill a bill.
“It doesn’t have to get done tomorrow,” he said.
State Senator Barry Finegold, Ryan’s counterpart on the committee, indicated Tuesday afternoon that a temporary extension wasn’t being actively considered for the year’s final formal sessions on Wednesday.
“At this point, it’s not on the table,” said the Andover Democrat. Finegold said he’s confident the Legislature would eventually agree on a broader set of election law changes. “I think at the end of the day it will get done, it’s just a question of when.”
Voting rights advocates say they, too, believe a bill will ultimately emerge, but they said frustration is mounting as they wait for House Democrats to make their move.
“We’re tired of kicking the can down the road and passing temporary extension after temporary extension,” said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager for MassVOTE. “Voters are tired, and they’re getting confused.”
Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, noted that there is a special election set for January in the First Suffolk and Middlesex Senate district to fill the seat vacated by state Senator Joseph Boncore, who resigned in September. At the moment, however, there is no Republican candidate, meaning the Dec. 14 Democratic primary between Boston city councilor Lydia Edwards and Anthony D’Ambrosio, a Revere School Committee member, would produce the likely winner.
“The House could take action today if they wanted to,” Huang said. “It’s a matter of choices and priorities. If they choose to prioritize passing the VOTES Act, we’ll have greater security and flexibility in our elections.”
Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said limiting a gap between the temporary law and a permanent one is important, particularly to avoid sowing confusion among local election administrators and voters. But he believes the debate over a more sweeping package of changes “can happen in 2022.”
“The timing doesn’t matter nearly as much as the substance,” he said.