Disagreements over funding to mail ballot applications for the upcoming election cycle spilled into the public eye Tuesday after the state's top election official and election reform advocates differed on the permissible use of federal money.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation into law Monday that directs Secretary of State William Galvin to send mail-in voting applications by July 15 in order to give voters time to request a ballot for the Sept. 1 primary elections, fill it out, and mail it back in. Crafted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates and state officials have pointed to the new law as a way to help voters participate in the upcoming election cycle without putting themselves at risk for COVID-19.
"We had hoped to do it by that date. The legislation calls for it. But the Legislature has not sent the money. We can't pay for the postage. We can't pay for the printing until we have the postal permit. We can't buy the permit until we get the money," Galvin told reporters Tuesday outside the State House.
The point of contention centers on whether guidance from the Election Assistance Commission allows for states to use federal funds through the CARES Act to mail applications to voters for early or absentee ballots. There were nearly 4.6 million registered voters in Massachusetts as of February.
Galvin said a $5 million appropriation included in a more than $1 billion Senate spending bill (S 2799) that largely deals with COVID-19 appropriations "would probably get us going." The House and Senate versions of that spending bill differ, and it's unclear when legislative leaders will agree on a single bill.
When the Senate passed the voting reforms, it estimated the bill's costs would reach about $8 million.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said the secretary of state's office could turn to an $8.2 million portion of Massachusetts' CARES Act allocation to mail applications by July 15.
"It cannot be used for anything else. And although there is need for election equipment and the like, we have other money the federal government has allocated for that," she said at a Tuesday press conference. "This is exactly and precisely what that money was prepared for. And if the secretary doesn't follow what the regulations call for you can stay tuned for us for some next steps."
The secretary of state does not believe CARES Act funds can be used to mail applications to all registered voters, a spokesperson for Galvin's office said, as a result of guidance from the Election Assistance Commission. The secretary's office can use the money to send the ballots themselves, the spokesperson said.
The commission, in an April 6 letter to chief state election officers, provided additional guidance to states writing that "funds are for additional costs associated with the national emergency related to the coronavirus and are to be spent 'to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.'"
According to the letter, allowable uses include printing additional ballots and envelopes, statewide or local database upgrades to allow for online absentee or mail ballot requests, and additional mailing and postage costs.
"I do expect the COVID [supplemental] budget to get done very soon but I'd also add that the secretary does have money from the CARES Act, and in my opinion does have the money to send this out. We're not talking a huge amount of money to do this," Election Laws Co-Chair Barry Finegold said at the press conference. "In my opinion, he does have the money and I hope he will send them out expeditiously."
Voters have three options for the fall elections: voting early, in-person on election day, or by mail. For the first time in the state, voters can take advantage of an early voting window before the statewide primary.
Local clerks will face larger amounts of manual labor when sending out and receiving mail-in ballots, a concern previously raised by advocates and state officials alike. Galvin said his office is exploring ways to help local officials through tabulation equipment and electronic poll books.
"When you're increasing or taking a significant number of the electorate and having them vote-by-mail, that means you have to mail them out, you have to mail them back, receive them back, you have to log them in, and you have to tabulate," he said. "It's going to be a burden on them. We're going to try to help them wherever we can."
Asked about voter fraud, Galvin said his office is always concerned about the potential for false ballots.
"I know some candidates speculate about it sometimes. But it's untrue. The history with my office in terms of voter fraud, when we've had voter fraud issues in the past, it's been candidates who've been perpetrating fraud, and we've never hesitated to prosecute people," he said. "There is a warning on the application that illegal voting is punishable both by state and federal law. And I assure you if we have any indication fraud, we'll be up there prosecuting people right away."