VOTING IN THE AGE OF COVD-19

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By Bob Katzen

The Elections Laws Committee held a virtual online hearing and heard testimony on several bills from many participants who weighed in on what changes to make in the voting procedures for this year’s Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 General Election. There were some differences on three main issues: whether to mail ballots to every voter or only those who request one; how many days early pre-Election Day in-person voting should be allowed; and how polling places should be physically set up and spread out in order to maintain social distancing.

“As a committee, we felt it was important to live-stream a virtual hearing to maintain transparency and allow constituents to experience the hearing remotely,” said Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover) Senate chair of the Election Laws Committee. “We heard a great deal of testimony and insight today on the various possible solutions to the challenges COVID-19 has imposed on our elections. The committee has a lot of work to do in the coming days as we carefully review the testimony, but I am confident that we have the tools to modify our elections to promote health, safety and accessibility and to ensure that citizens can safely exercise their right to vote this fall.”

Congressman Joe Kennedy kicked off the hearing with his support of universal mail-in voting as the way to increase voter “turnout” and not spread the virus. “No-fault absentee ballots just aren’t going to be good enough,” Kennedy said. “Seven days of early voting is not good enough. Mailing ballots to some, but not all, is not good enough.”

“Voting must be safe,” said U.S. Senator Ed Markey who is being challenged for re-election by Kennedy in the September primary. “It must be accessible. And it must be paramount. No one should have to choose between their personal well-being or the well-being of others and exercising their constitutional right to vote. Democracy is our shared responsibility.”

Pam Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts supports universal voting by mail and says local officials, many of who work alone or part time, “will just not be able to keep up with the demands of the multi-step absentee ballot requests process.”

“Sending every voter a ballot by mail for the November election will cut clerks’ workload in half,” said Wilmot. “It will ensure that every voter who wants to vote at home can do so. Vote by mail is a tried and true voting system that has worked well in states across the country for decades … The policy has proven successful in increasing access to the ballot while also ensuring elections are fair and secure.”

Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) disagreed. She said universal mail-in voting in the September primary is “impossible.” She filed a bill which she said is “feasible” and would send ballots to voters who request them for both upcoming statewide elections.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh cautioned that it would cost cities and towns lots of money if they had to mail a large number of ballots. He also noted the communities would have to spend money to hire more temporary staff. “A lot of what I’m talking about is staffing and making sure we have appropriate staffing for this, because we’ve never seen the potential magnitude of mail-in ballots we’re going to see in this year’s elections,” said Walsh.

“There is no definitive answer to the question of whether Massachusetts should automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters, only a complex trade-off between expanded opportunity and election security,” said the Center for State policy Analysis in written testimony. “Polling places need to remain open as an option for all voters, including those with unstable housing, individuals with disabilities and minority groups that have historically shown a preference for in-person voting. Allowing early voting for the September primary could also improve access.”

In mid-April, the American Council of the Blind, the parent organization of the Bay State Council of the Blind submitted written testimony urging the committee to protect the voting rights of people who are blind and disabled during the current pandemic. “Implementing Vote by Mail programs without offering an accessible online absentee voting alternative for people with disabilities is not going to be acceptable to the community of people with disabilities,” said the council.

The League of Women Voters submitted written testimony. “While the League supports mailing a ballot to all voters ahead of the November election, we also believe that in-person voting must be available, with provisions in place to assure voting is safe for voters and election workers. In-person voting is a necessary option if mailed ballots don’t arrive in time and may be the preferred way to vote for some voters.”

“The window to pass [a bill] in a timely manner is certainly shrinking,” said John Rosenberry, Secretary of State’s Bill Galvin’s legislative director. He urged legislators to get going and agree on a compromise bill before time runs out. Others echoed his concerns and noted ballots have to be printed and cities and towns will need to put a new voting-by-mail system into place.

Rep. John Lawn (D-Watertown) summed it up: “Today we heard great testimony from election officials and advocates addressing a variety of challenges we face as we work to ensure fair, safe and secure elections during this unprecedented time. I look forward to continuing to work together to reach a solution that allows all voters in the state to freely exercise their right to vote during this election cycle.”

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