Vote-by-mail legislation bill awaits compromise on Beacon Hill

Legislation that would give Massachusetts voters more options to participate remotely in the fall primary and general elections is advancing on Beacon Hill this week with House and Senate versions set to be reconciled by lawmakers.

Both bills — H. 4778 and S. 2755—allow for extended early voting periods, in-person on election day, or voting-by-mail. While the bills share the same goal, variations on two specific issues —application mailing methods and limitations on changing mailing locations— remained unresolved as of Tuesday.

A House-Senate conference committee comprising the Senate’s chair of Election Laws, Barry Finegold, Cynthia Creem, and Ryan Fattman and House Elections chair John Lawn, Reps. Michael Moran and Brad Hill is coordinating meeting plans to address discrepancies between the bills.  

According to State House News Service, Finegold has said that while House and Senate negotiators don’t yet have a meeting scheduled, he’s “sure it’s going to be soon.” 

In each version, voters would have until seven days prior to an election to apply for a mail-in ballot and postage would be prepaid.  The legislation would also require Secretary of State William Galvin to mail to every registered voter by July 15 an application for the Sept. 1 primaries and the Nov. 3 general election and also to create an online portal for voters to request early or absentee ballots that must be operational by Oct. 1. 

Sen. Nick Collins, who represents Dorchester and Mattapan, said the legislation would “break down barriers to access and maintain the integrity of our elections here in Massachusetts. Access to safe and secure elections is a bedrock principle of our democracy.”

Rep. Dan Hunt of Dorchester said that the legislation would “go a long way in order to ensure access to the ballot. I think it’s important for community activists and people that are involved in the Democratic Party to educate folks and get people registered to vote.”

The House bill would require local officials to evaluate whether a change in polling location would have a disparate impact on access based on race, national origin, disability, income, or age, no later than three days before the decision. It also proposes sending registered voters two separate applications by mail, one on July 15 for the primaries, and another in October for the general election. 

The Senate bill favors a combined mailing on July 15 to include paperwork for both elections and also calls for a general election application to be included in the October voter guide. Amendments adopted by the Senate would only allow evaluations on polling location changes if officials made an effort to recruit poll workers and if doing so would not have a “disparate adverse impact on access to the polls on the basis of race, national origin, disability, income, or age.”