On May 14, the Joint Committee on Election Laws held its first-ever virtual public hearing on a number of bills that would change the way elections are held for the September state primary and November general election due to continuing COVID-19 public health concerns.

Many participants urged lawmakers to support more vote-by-mail and early voting options, but there wasn’t a consensus on details.

The bills before the committee, including one drafted by Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, vary widely on the specifics of how a registered voter would receive mailed ballots, how long early voting periods should last, and what in-person voting would look like.

Local elections
Chapter 45 of the Acts of 2020, enacted in March, allows municipalities to delay local caucuses and elections that were scheduled to be held before May 30 to anytime before June 30. The law also allows any eligible voter to vote early by mail, and expanded absentee voter eligibility to those who may be taking precautions and staying home due to concerns about COVID-19.

Hadley, Medfield, Sandwich and Sheffield are among municipalities that have seen various degrees of success with voting by mail so far this spring, with some seeing far less in-person voting and more voting by mail, and some seeing roughly one-third of voters voting by mail and two-thirds voting in person.

One takeaway from municipal elections this spring is that voting by mail is a labor-intensive and costly process for town clerks and their staff.

MMA testimony
In testimony submitted to the Elections Committee on May 14 regarding pending election bills, the MMA wrote, “We ask you to support provisions to facilitate the conduct of elections during the COVID-19 pandemic with an eye on long-term changes that can be implemented now, without imposing unfunded mandates or requirements, as cities and towns cannot absorb these given the deep revenue losses they are experiencing. … The MMA supports expanding voting-by-mail options to encourage and allow all citizens to exercise their right to vote safely.

“The Secretary of the Commonwealth should be required to issue guidance on how to run safe elections, considering important aspects such as PPE [personal protective equipment], social/physical distancing, proper sanitization protocols for voting booths and equipment, use of plexiglass and other barriers, and other public health safeguards to protect voters, poll workers, and observers.

“In addition, municipalities should have the option of consolidating and changing the locations of polling places and reducing the number of required poll workers at any given polling location.”

The MMA supports increased flexibility and authority to allow municipalities to decide how best to hold safe and successful elections.

It is unclear how or when the several bills before the Elections Committee may move.

In a memo accompanying Secretary Galvin’s bill, Michelle Tassinari, the director and legal counsel of the Elections Division, wrote, “It is necessary to resolve this issue as soon as possible so that we are able to adequately prepare to administer increased voting by mail.”

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