Protecting Our Democracy While Protecting Public Health

The following testimony was delivered to the Joint Committee on Election Laws on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

My name is Jonathan Cohn, and I am the chair of the Issues Committee of Progressive Massachusetts. Our organization and our 16 chapters around the state advocate for shared prosperity, racial and social justice, robust democracy, and environmental sustainability. 

Anyone who believes in a robust democracy needs to be thinking ahead to what steps we must take to ensure that we can increase participation in our September and November elections while protecting public health. As stories earlier this year from states like Illinois, Florida, and Wisconsin demonstrate, we need to be proactive, lest our inaction lead to voter disenfranchisement or further outbreaks. 

That is why we are testifying in support of the following bills: 

 

  • SD.2912 (Rausch) /HD.5026 (Madaro): An Act establishing vote by mail in 2020
  • HD.5077 (Gouveia): An Act to establish safe, accessible, and fair elections 

 

 

“Pandemic-proofing” our elections will require several essential steps: 

    1. Expanding options to vote by mail for both primary and general: To allow voters to follow social distancing guidelines, we should minimize the number of voters who need to physically show up in person on Election Day to vote. Allowing more voters to request absentee ballots by counting COVID-19-related health risks as an accepted excuse for needing an absentee ballot, as the Legislature did for spring and special elections, is good first step, but we must go further and have the Commonwealth mail every eligible voter a ballot (with postage pre-paid) to reduce paperwork and increase democratic engagement. Moreover, it is essential that such ballots must also be made available in every language for which in-person ballots are available to avoid possible disenfranchisement. 
    2. Increasing the number of days of early voting for both primary and general: Early voting premiered in Massachusetts in 2016, and it has been a resounding success. Increasing the number of days of early voting would enable voters and election workers to better follow social distancing guidelines by spreading out the number of in-person voters across greater time.  
    3. Eliminating the voter registration deadline: Massachusetts’s 20-day voter registration cutoff is arbitrary and discriminatory, leaving out thousands of voters each election cycle. That impact will be exacerbated this year, as voter registration drives over the summer will be unable to occur and as voters seeking hard-copy voter registration forms will be unable to access them as libraries and civic centers remain closed. Our neighbors in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut have all eliminated voter registration deadlines (in some cases, decades ago), and implementation has been smooth and successful. 

 

  • Protecting in-person voting: When polling sites are closed, the impact disproportionately falls on disadvantaged communities, compounding existing inequalities. Similarly, voters with unstable addresses, voters with physical disabilities, and non-English-speaking voters may have difficulty with voting by mail. Their rights should not be taken away. 
  • Protecting poll workers: Stories from other states about polling sites without poll workers should be taken as a warning sign of what could happen if we do not take proactive steps to staff the polls and provide the necessary protective equipment for poll workers. Our democracy depends on poll workers; they should not have to put their lives at risk.

 

In Massachusetts, we cherish our democracy and our state’s role in the history of our country’s democracy, and we value setting a model for other states. It is time for us to do just that and show what safe and inclusive elections can look like. 

 

Sincerely, 

Jonathan Cohn

Chair, Issues Committee

Progressive Massachusetts 



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