It was a defining moment of the COVID-19 epidemic: on April 7, Wisconsin residents went to the polls in face masks after their state Supreme Court refused to delay an election. One person carried a makeshift cardboard sign which read, simply, “THIS IS RIDICULOUS.”
Now, as Milwaukee’s health commissioner says at least seven individuals may have been infected during that day’s proceedings, there’s growing push to prevent similar scenes in Massachusetts this fall.
“The goal here is very simple: to afford every voter the opportunity to vote by mail, should they choose not to vote in person at a polling place,” said secretary of state Bill Galvin.
Galvin notes that in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, and again in March’s presidential primary, state lawmakers gave Massachusetts voters a chance not just to vote early, but to vote early by mail. The process was straightforward: complete an application, send it to your city or town clerk and receive a ballot to print out and mail back.
Now, Galvin says, the legislature needs to take action once again to provide the same option to voters in September.
“The Legislature has been reluctant to expand early voting to primaries. The first primary they had applied it to was March 3, the presidential primary,” Galvin said.
“They must expand it. I cannot do that unilaterally.”
In addition, Galvin argues, the Legislature should increase the ten-day window that people voting early by mail usually receive.
“We want to give voters options,” he said.
Galvin says he’ll submit a detailed plan for COVID-19 election reform next month. In the interim, legislation that would change the way Massachusetts votes during the coronavirus crisis is already under consideration on Beacon Hill.
State Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) recently filed a bill that would lock in early voting for September, and allow anyone worried about COVID-19 get an absentee ballot. Absentee ballots are usually reserved for people who can’t physically reach the polls, and they can be cast weeks before an election.
“We don’t want people to feel they that have to choose between democracy and health,” Creem said.
Creem’s proposals are broadly in sync with the vision outlined by Galvin, which she says makes it more likely that her bill will become law.
“Unless we get the secretary of state on board, we’re not going to get anything to move quickly here,” she said.
Some on Beacon Hill want to go bigger, however. The 2020 Vote By Mail Act filed by state Senator Becca Rausch (D-Needham) and state Representative Adrian Madaro (D-Boston) would send primary ballots to Massachusetts voters before September’s election, with unenrolled voters free to choose a Democratic ballot or a Republican one. Prior to the November general election, every voter would receive a ballot, period.
“It’s automatic to the absolute greatest extent possible in the Commonwealth,” Rausch said. “Prepaid envelopes. Instructions in multiple languages.”
Rausch’s bill would also provide protective equipment for poll workers; upgrade the state’s voting technology; and make election day a holiday.
“It’s going to be expensive, and we all know that revenue is in a difficult moment right now,” Rausch said. “That having been said, this is an investment that is worthwhile.”
Also thinking big: Common Cause Massachusetts, which is currently developing its own COVID-19 election-reform proposals in concert with other advocacy groups.
Pam Wilmot, Common Cause MA’s executive director, agrees that the state should mail every voter a ballot, and make physical polling places as safe as possible. In addition, she says, the state’s approach to voter registration needs to be revisited.
“A lot of people have moved during the crisis and may not be updating their drivers’ licenses.” Wilmot said. “So we need to provide an opportunity for them to correct their registration [with] an easy method. The best way is as they’re voting.”
In other words, Wilmot is suggesting same-day voter registration, which has been a goal of Massachusetts progressives for years.
All of which raises the question: how aggressive is Beacon Hill likely to be? After all, earlier this month, the state Supreme Judicial Court had to adjust signature requirements for candidates trying to make the ballot after the Legislature failed to act.
It’s also worth noting that some of the sweeping proposals just mentioned leave Galvin — who’d be responsible for implementing them — sounding somewhat annoyed.
“We’re going to put together a very specific proposal that maximizes voter options,” Galvin said. “And that’s what this should be about: maximizing voter options, not about candidate strategies, or party strategies or press releases.”
Still, if the coronavirus crisis has taught us one consistent lesson, it’s that radical change can come when you least expect it — and quickly.