MA Senate Votes Down Efforts to Protect In-Person Voting, Streamline Mail Voting

Earlier today, the Massachusetts Senate voted 40 to 0 for a bill to protect our fall elections during the pandemic. 

Like the bill passed by the House, the bill contained a number of important provisions:

  • Sending an application to vote early by mail to every registered voter for both the September 1 primary election and the November 3 general election
  • Ensuring all applications and ballots sent by mail include prepaid return postage
  • Ensuring that ballots postmarked by Election Day will be counted (but for the general election only)
  • Allowing voters to apply to vote by mail through an online portal and enabling any voter who wants to vote absentee to do so this year
  • Expanding early voting for the primary and the general

The Senate embraced some opportunities to strengthen the bill during debate today but, unfortunately, rejected others. Here’s a rundown of what happened. 

THE GOOD PART I: VOICE VOTES 

The Senate adopted several important amendments via voice vote: 

  • Disability Access - Part I: Sen. Cindy Creem’s Amendment #2, which requires that Secretary Bill Galvin submit a report to the Legislature within six months after the bill's enactment on how he can make voting more accessible for voters with disabilities, especially with regard to online voting.
  • Disability Access - Part II: Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s Amendment #7, which requires the necessary accommodations for voters with disabilities so that they can vote by mail without losing their right to a secret ballot 
  • Absentee Ballot Request Portal: Sen. Eric Lesser’s Amendment #3, which strengthens the language around the online absentee ballot request portal that Secretary Galvin has to create. In particular, it eliminates the requirement for a voter’s signature (which is redundant given the need for a signature upon submission of the ballot), adds language that the system shall apply to the primary if feasible, and eliminates “to the feasible” to the requirement that the system be operational by October 1 (i.e., creating an affirmative requirement for its operationality, rather than a mere suggestion).
  • Designating the Mailing Address for a Ballot: Sen. Adam Hinds’s Amendment #10, which requires that early-voting-by-mail applications contain space for voters to designate the mailing address to which a ballot should be sent (Think: people who have chosen to quarantine somewhere other than where they are registered to vote) 
  • PPE at the Polls: Sen. Joan Lovely’s Amendment #18, which requires Galvin to issue regulations around the use of personal protective equipment at the polls (the bill had merely used the vague language of “appropriate clothing” to this end) 
  • Extending the VBM Application Deadline: Sen. Jo Comerford’s Amendment #33, which extends the deadline for vote-by-mail applications (changing it from the seventh day before the election to the fourth day before the election) 

 

THE GOOD PART II: UNANIMOUS RECORDED VOTES 

The Senate voted unanimously in favor of two amendments: 

Equity & Access when Making Changes to Polling Locations: Sen. Jamie Eldridge’s Amendment #20, which moves up the deadline for changing a polling location from 15 days before the election to 20 days before the election, and requires municipalities to publicly evaluate and report on whether such change would have a disparate impact on access to the polling place on the basis of race, national origin, disability, income, or age.

Public Education about Changes the 2020 Elections: Sen. Becca Rausch’s redrafted Amendment #23, which requires Secretary Galvin to conduct a public awareness campaign to inform voters about the bill, requires municipalities to take recorded votes if they choose to change polling locations, and requires that voter information booklets be sent out no later than October 5 for the general election (and that they explain that voters who have already applied to vote by mail for the general need not do so again).

 

THE BAD: REJECTIONS OF KEY IMPROVEMENTS TO THE BILL 

However, the Senate also voted down several important amendments. They rejected, via voice vote, Sen. Harriette Chandler’s amendment to increase the number of early voting days for the primary to match those offered for the general election. 

Strengthening the Protections for In-Person Voting: The Senate voted down Sen. Jamie Eldridge’s Amendment #24 (Guaranteeing Safe, Accessible, and Fair Elections For All), which strengthened the language around safe in-person voting. The underlying bill creates no deadlines for regulations, no requirement for public input, and no requirements for municipalities themselves to plan for the fall elections, and it also leaves out important elements of safe in-person voting.

The amendment would have required Bill Galvin to issue a draft guidance on Safe, Accessible, and Fair In-Person Voting by June 29, make such a guidance  available for public comment for at least ten days, and have a final guidance posted online by July 17. The amendment provided a thorough list of what the guidance should cover: 

  • (a) consideration of the layout of polling locations, including six-foot markers and proper signage in and outside of the polling site, to facilitate physical distancing throughout the voting process, including while voters are standing in line (inside or outside the polling location), when entering the voting area, while voting, while casting their ballot, and exiting, ideally through a different door than the entrance.
  • (b) expansion and redesign of polling locations to accommodate physical distancing throughout the voting process, or, when necessary, the relocation of polling locations to protect health and safety, keeping in mind that closing familiar polling places and contraction in the number of polling locations should be a last resort and only to be used when other preparedness measures cannot adequately ensure safe voter participation.
  • (c) implementation of curbside voting for voters with physical or health limitations;
  • (d) the protection of poll workers with personal protective equipment, adequate access to cleaning supplies throughout the day, access to hand-washing and bathrooms with adequate soap, water, and disposable paper towels, and appropriate distancing measures;
  • (e) voter access to hand-washing and bathrooms with adequate soap, water, and disposable paper towels;
  • (f) outreach, recruitment, and training of additional and reserve poll workers to ensure that the burden of administering the in-person election does not fall on poll workers at greater risk from COVID-19, and to guard against the possibility that a shortage of poll workers could compromise the administration of the election and the health and safety of voters.
  • (g) expanding public awareness and participation in early voting and absentee voting to reduce lines;
  • (h) expanded outreach on alternatives to in-person voting for those populations identified by the department of public health to be at great risk from COVID-19.

The amendment also requires cities and towns to have their own election preparedness plans no later than 30 days before the election. 

Only 16 senators voted for this common-sense amendment, and 23 voted against it. 

Senate_vote_on_SAFE.png

Elections Committee Chairman Barry Finegold argued that the amendment was covered by Sen. Joan Lovely’s Amendment #18 (which merely changed the words “appropriate clothing” to “personal protective equipment”) and that Secretary Galvin has already committed to much of the amendment’s content. He probably even gave a pinky swear! 

 

Streamlining the Vote-By-Mail Process: The Senate also rejected an amendment from Sen. Diana DiZoglio (#28, Providing for a uniform early voting/absentee ballot) to streamline the vote-by-mail process by creating a standard form for absentee ballot requests and early-vote-by-mail requests. Such a change would reduce possible voter confusion and make the jobs of poll workers simpler. 

As Sen. DiZoglio noted, if the bill treats taking precaution related to COVID-19 as a valid excuse for not being able to vote in person on election day, then the distinction between an absentee ballot application and an early-vote-by-mail application is a meaningless formality, not a substantive difference. 

Only 14 senators voted for this common-sense amendment, and 25 voted against it.

Diana_amendment.png

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment


CONNECT
ISSUES AND ACTION
to access member exclusive material, login
via facebook or via Twitter