Massachusetts Senate Approves Bill To Expand Voting Rights

BOSTON (AP) — A bill that would permanently write into Massachusetts law early voting options that were temporarily adopted during the height of the coronavirus pandemic was approved overwhelmingly Wednesday by the Massachusetts Senate.

The bill would also enact same-day voter registration and make other changes to the commonwealth’s election process, including allowing no-excuse voting by mail.

The Senate passed the bill by a 36-3 vote.

Supporters say the proposal incorporates lessons learned during the pandemic and takes critical steps to expand the right to vote in Massachusetts at a time when many states are tightening access to the ballot box.

State lawmakers previously enacted legislation to temporarily extend vote-by-mail and early voting options through Dec. 15.

“One of the few silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we had the chance to prove that the voting reforms that so many have advocated for can and do work,” Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka said in a written statement when the bill was unveiled.

Many of the measures included in the legislation helped produce record voter turnout last fall, according to Patricia Comfort, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts.

Critics warned that some of the measures might run afoul of the Massachusetts Constitution.

The bill would let individuals register to vote during early voting periods or on the day of a primary or election. Supporters say that would bring Massachusetts in line with 20 other states and the District of Columbia that already allow same-day registration.

To expand in-person voting, the bill would require two weeks — including two weekends — of early in-person voting for biennial state elections and any municipal elections held on the same day. It would allow one week — including one weekend — of early in-person voting for a presidential or state primary and any municipal elections held on the same day.

Municipalities would also be allowed to opt-in to early voting in person for any local election not held with another election.

Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz called the bill “great progress.”

“Procedural hurdles have been a weapon of de facto disenfranchisement for decades in this country, and this bill takes aim at dismantling a number of them,” she said following the vote. “I’m especially thrilled that it includes Election Day registration.”

As part of the bill aimed at allowing permanent no-excuse mail-in voting, the secretary of the commonwealth would be required to send out mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters on July 15 of every even-numbered year.

In the past, the use of mail-in voting was restricted to those who could offer a valid excuse for not being able to get to the polls on Election Day.

Mail-in ballots would be accepted for a biennial state election if mailed on or by Election Day and received by 5 p.m. on the third day after the election. The bill would also let local cities and towns set up secure ballot drop boxes and allow local elections officials to pre-process mail-in and early voting ballots ahead of Election Day.

People with disabilities would be allowed to ask for certain accommodations to vote by mail in state elections including electronic and accessible instructions, a ballot application, a ballot, and a voter affidavit that can be submitted electronically, under the bill.

Finally, the bill would ensure that individuals currently incarcerated who are eligible to vote are provided with voting information and materials needed to exercise their right to vote — including requiring correctional facilities to distribute information about voting rights as prepared by the state and assisting incarcerated individuals in registering, applying for and returning mail ballots.

The secretary of the commonwealth would also be required to join the multi-state Electronic Registration Information Center, which is designed to help states keep more accurate voting rolls.

The bill now heads to the Massachusetts House.