Yesterday, the Massachusetts Senate passed the VOTES Act, a landmark voting reform bill. The Act permanently codifies the popular mail-in and early voting options used in Massachusetts in 2020, increases ballot access for voters with disabilities and service members overseas and takes steps to modernize the Commonwealth’s election process.
“We simply cannot take the right to vote for granted, and we must never forget how lucky we are to live in a democracy,” said senator Barry Finegold. “Billions of people across the world cannot vote in free and fair elections. Here in the United States, people have fought and died for the right to vote. Such a hard-earned right is sacred.”
Finegold, who represents Tewksbury, is Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Election Laws and of the VOTES Act Conference Committee.
For Tewksbury and other municipalities, the act adds flexibility for local officials. It would give the town the option to set up secure drop boxes for mail-in ballots and allow election workers to pre-process mail-in and early voting ballots by opening up envelopes and verifying signatures in advance of Election Day, making for faster results.
It would also make it easier for election officials to fill poll worker vacancies and give the town discretion as to the use of check-out lists at polling locations.
“This landmark election reform bill will empower voters and strengthen our democracy,” said Finegold. “In 2020, mail-in and early voting options helped generate record-breaking turnout. It is now time to build on this progress and enact long-lasting voting reforms. The VOTES Act is a big step in the right direction and will help ensure that every voter can exercise their fundamental right to vote.”
The bill contains the following key provisions:
Permanent mail-in voting:
• Allows registered voters to vote by mail for any presidential, state or municipal primary or election. Municipalities may opt out of offering early voting by mail for any municipal preliminary or election not held on the same day as a state or federal election.
• Allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot for all applicable preliminaries, primaries and elections in the calendar year.
• Requires the Secretary of the Commonwealth (SoC) to send out mail-in ballot applications, with return postage guaranteed, to registered voters before each presidential primary, state primary and biennial state election.
• Requires the SoC to implement an online portal to allow voters to request a mail-in ballot.
• Requires mail-in ballot applications to be posted on every municipality’s website.
• Guarantees return postage for all mail-in ballots.
Expanded early in-person voting:
• Enshrines two weeks (including two weekends) of early voting in-person for biennial state elections and one week (including one weekend) for presidential or state primaries.
• Requires municipalities to establish accessible early voting sites.
• Requires larger municipalities to have early voting sites open for longer hours during the early voting period.
• Allows municipalities to opt-in to early voting in-person for any other municipal election not held on the same day as a state or federal election.
Electronic voting options for voters with disabilities and service members
• Enables a voter with disabilities to request accommodations from the SoC, including an accessible electronic ballot application, ballot, and voter affidavit that can be submitted electronically.
• Streamlines the voting process for uniformed and overseas citizens, giving them the option to vote through an electronic system approved by the SoC.
• Moves the voter registration deadline from 20 to 10 days before a preliminary, primary, or election.
• Requires the SoC’s online voter registration portal to be offered in multiple languages.
• Clarifies the automatic voter registration process.
Jail-based voting reforms:
• Helps ensure that incarcerated individuals who are currently eligible to vote are able to exercise their voting rights.
• Requires correctional facilities to display and distribute voter education and election information materials, as prepared by the SoC.
• Require facilities to assist individuals who are incarcerated and may be eligible to vote in registering, applying for and returning mail-in ballots.
• Requires SoC to provide guidance to local election officials about the qualifications and rights of eligible incarcerated voters and how to process their applications to register and vote.
• Requires facilities to provide voting information and a voter registration form upon an individual’s release from the facility.
In addition, the measure requires the SoC to join the Electronic Registration Information Center by July 1, 2022, in order to help Massachusetts keep more accurate voting rolls. It also instructs the SoC to conduct a comprehensive public awareness campaign to highlight the provisions in the bill.
Overall, the VOTES Act builds on the successful temporary mail-in and early voting options used in 2020 in Massachusetts. More people voted than ever before in the Commonwealth in the 2020 general election: approximately 3.66 million residents cast ballots, totaling 76% of all registered voters. Moreover, 42% of voters voted by mail in the general election, and an additional 23% voted during early voting windows.
Similarly, over 1.7 million people voted in last year’s state primary, the highest number of voters ever in a state primary. Close to half of all voters voted by mail during the primary.
In contrast, in Tewksbury’s 2022 town election, just 2,271 of 23,921 registered voters went to the polls, a 9.5% turnout.
The VOTES Act now heads to the House for consideration.