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Vote-By-Mail Plans Proposed In Massachusetts

a hand puts an envelope with a ballot into a collection box

A coalition of voting-rights organizations has endorsed a bill filed on Beacon Hill to create a vote-by-mail alternative in Massachusetts.The legislation would allow no-excuse absentee voting for both the September 1 primaries and the November 3election. There would be two weeks of early-voting for the primary and three weeks for the general election. A ballot would be mailed to every registered voter. WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill spoke with Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG.

As the saying goes, in a crisis there is danger and there is opportunity, and we have an opportunity right now to make our elections fairer and safer for the remainder of 2020. The way that we are used to voting in Massachusetts is in person, crowded together at the polling place, and obviously, we need alternatives to that, given the course of this pandemic. So this bill gives us the opportunity in a much more robust way to vote absentee, to vote by mail, and to vote over a broader amount of time. It expands early voting to make elections safer for all of us this year.

Now, obviously, that's an interest that everybody has making election safer, but it's also important to protect the integrity of elections. Are there safeguards here for that?

Well vote by mail is not a new concept. In fact, in some states like Oregon, which is a similar size to ours, there is only voting by mail now and it's been that way for a while. Now, we are going to maintain voting in person here, but we are not piloting some high tech brand new untested technique here. Voting by mail is a time tested method, and we're certain that with enough prep, we can expand voting by mail quite extensively. And that's why we feel it's urgent to get this bill passed as soon as possible so that we do have enough time to prep for the September and November elections.

Does the legislation have a lot of support at this point?

I think that there is near consensus that ambitious and bold changes need to be enacted to make these elections this year fairer and safer.

How is this going to be paid for? I saw one estimate that of the mail and voting system in Massachusetts could cost as much as $30 million.

I don't think that there is a price tag that everyone has concluded is exact, but I feel like you know, the conversation over the past week or so, I reject, out of hand, the notion that there's a choice between the fundamental parts of our society and safety, and democracy is probably the single most fundamental part of our of our society, and we need it. We need access and we need it to be safe for all of us. And I'm not trying to make the price tag sound irrelevant, but I don't want to have to choose. And I don't think any of us needs to choose between the price tag for expanding mail in voting and having an election that is accessible and safe to all.

Now you said this would not preclude people from voting in person, we would still have in person voting. Does the legislation also provide for safeguards at polling places for voters and poll workers?

In the legislation, it asks the secretary of state to issue regulations that govern public health safeguards at polling place sites so that there are consistent standards, there are clear standards as to what we need to do to protect poll workers and voters in in person sites.

Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin this week put out a plan for voting this year.  It includes no-excuse absentee voting and expanded early-voting.  He does not propose mailing a ballot to every registered voter. The Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University estimated a vote-by-mail operation in Massachusetts would cost between $12 million and $30 million depending on the complexity.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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