Pandemic fuels push for more ballot reforms

A group of lawmakers will work in the coming weeks to extend COVID-era elections reforms so that they cover this spring’s municipal elections, then turn their attention toward securing a permanent overhaul to the state’s voting system.

A bill that Rep. John Lawn and Sen. Cynthia Creem touted last week has many broad similarities to a recommendation Secretary of State William Galvin made a day earlier. Both would enshrine mail-in and early voting policies and authorize same-day voter registration in Massachusetts.

While they work to build consensus on tackling the long-term proposal, Lawn and Creem said they will also seek action in the short term to ensure that voters can continue to cast ballots by mail and that cities and towns can open early-voting periods in upcoming local elections.

Creem has filed a bill (SD 189) that would push the expiration of those allowances from March 31 to Dec. 31. Lawn said he believes legislative leaders are interested in a three-month extension through June.

“We’re hearing from a lot of city and town clerks who are anxious about planning for this for the April, May, and June elections that are coming up, so that’s something we’re immediately trying to extend to the end of June,” Lawn said.

Lawn, a Watertown Democrat who served as House Election Laws Committee chair last session, and Creem outlined legislation they dubbed the VOTES Act (HD 1536 / SD 1002) that would keep many of last year’s mail-in and early voting reforms permanent.

Under the bill, elections officials would be required to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters. A voter could reply with a request to receive mail-in ballots permanently for all future elections until they cancel.

In-person early voting would be offered for at least two weeks before regular state elections and one week before primaries and special elections, while local election officials could choose whether or not to make those options available in municipal contests.

The Lawn and Creem bill overlaps in several major sections with what Galvin, the state’s chief elections official, proposed on Feb. 9. It goes further in some areas, including clear language requiring sheriffs and corrections officials to distribute information about voting and mail-in ballot applications to eligible inmates.

Bay State residents are not permitted to vote while they are serving a sentence after a felony conviction, though they regain the right once their term is complete.

“Voting is a way of participating and feeling part of a community, and it can play an important role in a successful re-entry from prison,” Creem, a Newton Democrat, said. “Additionally, over half of incarcerated people in Massachusetts are pre-trial and still innocent. They should be able to vote if they want. It is not a privilege, it is a right.”

The bill from Lawn and Creem would also allow prospective voters to register on the same day that they cast a ballot, either on Election Day or on any of the in-person early voting days, and push the voter registration deadline from 20 days before an election to 10 days.

Galvin said that his forthcoming bill would only allow same-day registration on Election Day itself.

Some advocates and lawmakers have pushed same-day registration for years without any success. Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG, said at the Wednesday press conference that Massachusetts lags 21 other states that already authorized the policy, echoing a point former Common Cause Massachusetts Pam Wilmot made in 2019.

In 2014, the Senate approved language that would have allowed voters to register and cast ballots in one visit, but the provision did not survive negotiations with the House. During its debate of the Covid-19 elections bill in June 2020, the House rejected same-day registration amendment with a 16-139 vote.

Addressing that vote, Lawn said that lawmakers did not want to put too much pressure on city and town clerks last year given that their jobs were already upended by the pandemic, and acknowledged the lack of consensus around the proposal in the House.

“As much as I’m very supportive of this, we’ve still got work to do with some of our colleagues who didn’t think it was the right time, which was most of us,” he said. “We do have some work to do with some other legislators, getting on board with same-day voter registration.”

Several voting rights and racial justice advocates said during last Wednesday’s bill unveiling that the legislation would also play an important role in improving equity.

“Communities of color continue to be disproportionately underrepresented in our electoral politics,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU Massachusetts. “National studies have shown that early voting and same-day voter registration increase participation in communities of color, particularly in Black communities.”

Election reform has emerged as a high-profile topic in the early weeks of the 2021-2022 lawmaking session.

Needham Democrat Sen. Becca Rausch unveiled a package of bills Tuesday that, in addition to making mail-in voting permanent, would also allow municipalities to adopt ranked-choice voting systems, designate Election Day as a legal holiday in place of Columbus Day, push the state primary from September to June, modernize the centralized voter registry, and require presidential primary candidates to disclose four years of tax returns to make the Massachusetts ballot.

“These half-dozen bills provide sorely needed upgrades to our antiquated voting systems and forward-thinking updates to our election laws that uplift voters across the Commonwealth,” Rausch said in a statement.

If he is reappointed as the House’s top lawmaker on the Election Laws Committee, Lawn will play an important role in synthesizing the various proposals into a bill that can reach the House and Senate floors.

Asked about differences between his bill, Rausch’s bill and Galvin’s proposal, Lawn replied that “everything’s on the table from every good idea that’s out there.”

“We’re absolutely not in different places,” Creem added about cooperation with the secretary. “We’re going to come up with a bill that he loves as much as we love.”

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