In November 2020, a record 76 percent of Massachusetts voters cast an election ballot in the midst of a pandemic. Two-thirds of those votes were cast by mail or at early-voting sites.
The “Big Lie” of voter fraud being probed in Washington these days never raised its ugly head — well, except in the imagination of one Republican candidate for governor.
But all of those reforms that made voting easier, safer, and more accessible for so many Massachusetts residents were only temporary emergency measures, with an expiration date now gone by. This week, the state is poised to enter the world of 21st-century voting — for good — with the final passage of the VOTES Act (An Act fostering Voter Opportunities, Trust, Equity and Security).
The Senate approved a final version of the bill last week and the House is expected to pass the measure Thursday, sending it to Governor Charlie Baker for his signature.
It makes permanent pandemic era reforms like no-excuse mail-in voting and early voting in both primary and general elections, adds more electronic accommodations for voters with disabilities, and gives residents living abroad or those in the military the option of electronic voting.
The compromise reached by House and Senate negotiators on competing versions of the bill did not in the end include same-day voter registration — to which the House seems to have an immovable aversion. That’s a disappointment, especially since 19 other states and the District of Columbia seem to have no trouble with a same-day system. But the compromise bill does make a modest reform by closing voter registration 10 days before an election rather than the current 20.
The important thing was simply to get this passed in time for ballot applications to be printed and mailed to voters on time. And if that took five months of high-stakes legislative gamesmanship, well, such is life on Beacon Hill.
But as voting rights are narrowed elsewhere around the country, a bill that expands voting options and opportunities here is still to be applauded. The measure will require correctional facilities to ensure that those incarcerated who are eligible (in Massachusetts that means anyone not serving a sentence for a felony conviction) are afforded the opportunity to vote.
It also allows election officials to pre-process mail-in and early-voting ballots — allowing them to open the envelopes and verify signatures prior to Election Day. That is intended to speed up the actual counting process, which still would not begin until the polls close election night. That clarification should eliminate the kind of election night snafu Boston experienced during its mayoral primary.
The bill is a good beginning on broadening access to the ballot, but it should not be the end.
Senate majority leader Cindy Creem has vowed to continue to push for same-day voter registration.
And surely it’s long past time to consider moving the statewide primary — this year scheduled for the day after Labor Day — to a date in the spring, when it wouldn’t compete with getting the kids ready for their first day back at school or other end-of-summer rituals. Only New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Delaware have later primaries (Sept. 13). Fifteen states have June primaries, 15 others are in August, and 11 are in May, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Every even-numbered year, Massachusetts goes through the ritual of revising its September primary election date to meet the federal requirement to have absentee ballots in the hands of military members 45 days prior to the general election in November. Often a major Jewish holiday or two further complicates the September schedule. Isn’t it time to abandon this madness, as a number of states did in 2009 when the federal requirement became law?
And if the object is to get more people involved in the voting process, then couldn’t Massachusetts do better than the day after Labor Day?
“I’ve got no problem with it,” Secretary of State Bill Galvin said of the earlier voting day in an interview. “Well, as long as it’s not July or August.”
New England’s notoriously brief summers, Galvin said, wouldn’t be great for turn-out. Early June or May wouldn’t pose a problem — as long as the rest of the election calendar for candidate filings was adjusted accordingly, he added.
Bills have been filed for the past several years (going back to 2017) to move the primary to June. This year the cause was taken up by Senator Rebecca Rausch of Needham. But each year they have died a quiet death.
Permanent and long-overdue voting reforms are just about in the books — and that’s no small thing. Moving future state primary elections to June would be a worthy follow-up.
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