Governor Charlie Baker has vetoed $1.2 million in state spending that election officials argue is critical for a new statewide early-voting program, a move advocates say could cripple efforts to expand residents’ ability to participate in the presidential race this fall.
The early-voting law, set to begin with the November general election, is intended to allow Massachusetts residents to vote up to 11 business days before Election Day, joining 36 other states that already have such provisions.
Barring a legislative override of gubernatorial vetoes, state election officials said they cannot fully put in place a key element of an election reform signed by then-governor Deval Patrick in 2014.
“I am very disturbed. This is very irresponsible,’’ said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who oversees state elections and is a strong supporter of the early-voting system.
“Elections are critical to a democracy, and we can’t compromise the right of the people to vote,’’ he said. “This is aimed at expanding that right by giving voters more options.”
The law stipulates that cities and towns must have at least one early-voting site open during business hours. It also gives municipalities the ability to extend their hours, hold polling hours on weekends, and establish additional voting sites — though they are not required to do so. Advocates have encouraged large municipalities to create and staff more than one early-voting site.
Communities across the state have already begun planning for early voting, which begins Oct. 24. Boston plans to have nine early-voting sites with weekend and evening hours, while Springfield will extend its hours and hopes to have at least one weekend day, though such measures are still preliminary.
The money at issue was aimed at facilitating the expanded hours, as well as myriad extra costs — from printing special ballots to creating a central voter registry to ensure the process works smoothly.
The legislation was aimed at boosting voter participation by giving residents more options for casting their ballots. Advocates anticipate increased turnout, in particular in communities of color.
As Baker’s spending cuts — made public last Friday — became clear, the move came under fire from Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and the leading election reform advocacy group in the state, Common Cause of Massachusetts.
Baker’s aides said the governor would not respond directly to the issues Galvin and others were raising and that he stood by his budget cuts. His communications director, Lizzy Guyton, noted the budget the governor signed last week increased funding for local aid, education, and opioid-abuse programs without raising taxes.
“The administration is confident that all state agencies will use taxpayer dollars efficiently while preparing for softening revenues and hopes the Secretary of State’s office will tap their multiple funding sources to carry out its mission,” Guyton said in a written statement.
Legislative leaders raised the possibility that lawmakers will override Baker’s vetoes related to early voting, which were among a number he made to cut $256 million from the state’s new $38.9 billion budget.
Rosenberg said in a statement that Baker’s budget-cutting goes directly against the spirit of the two-year-old law aimed at expanding voter participation.
“The governor’s veto of election funds for early voting endangers an important reform that the Legislature enacted in 2014 to maximize voter participation,’’ Rosenberg said.
“We should be encouraging people to vote, not making it harder.”
DeLeo, through a spokesman, also weighed in, saying he would support restoring the funds when the House and Senate take up Baker’s vetoes.
“Speaker DeLeo believes that early voting helps contribute to a vigorous, inclusive, and just elections process,’’ said his press secretary, Seth Gitell. “He supports overriding the administration’s veto of funds for early voting.”
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, which helped craft the law that put Massachusetts in line with the 36 other states in allowing residents to cast ballots up to 11 days before general elections, warned that the proposed budget cut “threatens to derail those important reforms.”
Wilmot said early voting is more important than ever as voters face the burdens of an increasingly complex world and need to be able to cast ballots on more than just a single day.
“The state has taken a big step toward modernizing our system, and early voting is a key one of those reforms,’’ she said.
Baker’s cuts even drew a strong rebuke from a member of the congressional delegation. “Governor Baker’s decision to gut funding for early voting in Massachusetts will disproportionately hit low-income communities and working families that already struggle to access the ballot box,” said US Representative Joe Kenney III. “I’m hopeful State House leaders can overturn this disappointing veto.”
Galvin also compared Baker’s cuts to what he called Republican-led efforts in other states to raise barriers for voters — either eliminating early voting programs, imposing strict photo ID requirements, or imposing tough registration restrictions.
“It is typical of Republican governors who do not support the expansion of voting rights,’’ Galvin said.
In her statement, Guyton did not respond to Galvin’s linking Baker’s cuts to the election funding to the national GOP’s targeting early-voting programs.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 22 states have implemented new restrictions since 2010 — almost all of them by Republican-controlled legislatures. One of the major targets has been early-voting periods. Those efforts generally reduce the number of days voters can vote prior to a general election.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.