Any-reason absentee voting, expanded early voting, drop boxes, all designed to limit exposure to COVID-19, all worked to enhance Massachusetts voter turnout for the 2020 election. 3.7 million – 76 percent of those registered – turned out, the highest percentage since 1992. Those procedures expired in June, and, while they have now been extended through December, covering this fall’s municipal elections, it’s up to the legislature to make them permanent.
Last February, Secretary of State Bill Galvin supported the effort to institutionalize the pandemic voting arrangements, and the legislature’s Election Laws Committee, with differences between House and Senate versions, is weighing a variety of measures (HD.1536 (led by Rep. John Lawn) and SD.1002 (led by Sen. Cindy Creem), but, with an August recess on the calendar, action is expected to be deferred until this fall. Making sure the broadest efforts to expand voter participation in Massachusetts is of no little importance.
Voting by mail and early voting ahead of both primary and general elections are of utmost importance. No-excuse voting by mail made life much easier in 2020. Without it, voters could qualify for an absentee ballot only if they were going to be out of town on election day, had a disability preventing them from going to the polling place in person, or held a religious belief making them unable to vote that day. This is far too restrictive, and the fact that 2020 mail-in procedures went off without a hitch validates the new process, which must be made permanent.
Pending legislation would also offer early voting seven days before a primary and 14 days before a general election. Early voting in 2020 cost about $3 million, reimbursed to cities and towns by the state. Pending legislation could be amended to cover such costs proactively and would be well worth the outlay given the anticipated enhancement of voter participation.
Well over half all Massachusetts voters took advantage of the mail-in and early voting options in 2020. Other reforms would allow prospective voters to register the same day they cast a ballot. Twenty-one other states and the District of Columbia, including neighboring New Hampshire and Maine, already provide same-day voter registration. This means that, if, for example, you have moved from Boston to Wayland, you could update the information and not be denied your vote.
Every year, as many of 9,000 state residents are held pending trial or incarcerated on misdemeanor charges. As such, they are still allowed to vote. During the last election, just three or four percent of those eligible to apply for absentee ballots actually did so. The pending legislation would make sure that sheriffs provide materials to educate those low-level prisoners of their existing rights to participate in the electoral process.
Another provision would make Massachusetts part of the ERIC system, the non-profit Electronic Registration Information Center, which not only keeps updating voter rolls but also commits members to contacting eligible but unregistered residents identified by ERIC, educating them on the most efficient means to register to vote. ERIC is already used by 30 other states and the District of Columbia. If the legislation is passed, the means of auditing election results (both voting machines and procedures) would be enhanced.
As Creem told me, the pending comprehensive proposal is “very inclusive.”
As I noted in my last blog, 17 states have enacted 28 new voter suppression laws. Another 400 proposed laws are pending. But we in the blue bubble of Massachusetts, with its nearly 30-year high record of voter participation last year, cannot sit around and congratulate ourselves on how good we are. The pandemic procedures, though extended through this fall, must be made permanent. And the comprehensive reforms promised in The Votes Act pending action in the Massachusetts legislature are an important way to provide the kind of robust voter participation that can help underpin a healthy democracy.