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Joint Election Committee considers VOTES Act

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO

After the pandemic changed the election process, a joint committee on elections held a public hearing May 19 on making some of those changes permanent. Mail-in ballots, safety protocols and new voting timelines proved successful in ensuring safety and increasing voter turnout, while ideas like same-day voter registration and voting rights for the incarcerated are gaining new traction.

The Massachusetts Legislature considered several acts during a hearing last week, but the VOTES Act took up most of the conversation because it encompasses widespread election reform. Focused on election modernization, H.805 and S.459 is referred to as a superbill by advocates.

The bill calls for:

Expanded vote-by-mail

Early in-person voting

Same day voter registration (on any voting day, including Election Day)

Jail-based voting reforms

Risk-limiting audits, a practice used to help confirm election results

Fixing Massachusetts automatic voter registration laws

Implementation of the Electronic Registration Information Center

COVID-19 has already forced the modernization of some of these election services because crowded lines at polling centers posed obvious safety issues.

The discussion at the hearing also included testimony on residents’ perceptions of their own voting rights. Formerly incarcerated residents often think they have lost their voting rights when they haven’t, immigrants aren’t always aware of what information is needed to register, and homeless people and people who frequently move have trouble keeping their registration up-to-date before deadlines.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the Massachusetts ACLU, joined the virtual hearing in support of the VOTES Act and how it could add thousands of more voters to Massachusetts’ registration records.

“The disruption and disenfranchisement that we’ve seen throughout the country that sought to dismantle the robust voting infrastructure and further marginalize communities of color and all other vulnerable populations has cast darkness over this country,” he said.

He specifically supports a removal of the 20-day cutoff for registration, which he said would have enabled more than 7,000 people to vote in the November election.

Voter turnout is on the rise for state and national elections — Massachusetts broke its voter turnout record in the November 2020 election, with an estimated 3.7 million votes. But on a city level, MassVOTE has reported major disparities that weren’t necessarily reduced — whereas whiter communities took advantage of expanded mail-in voting, outreach and awareness in Black communities was low, MassVOTE Policy and Communications Manager Alex Psilakis told Commonwealth Magazine recently.

Sophia Hall, supervising attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Massachusetts law on who can and can’t vote is nuanced, and the VOTES Act makes sure that state officials are actively protecting those rights.

Hall, a Black woman who receives hundreds of calls from voters about registration problems each election year, said the current laws do not serve Black people.

“How can we represent ourselves in such a progressive place when we have these archaic election laws?” she said.

Incarcerated people also had trouble voting in the last election, limiting even more people of color from accessing their rights.

Currently, people who are being held on bail or have been previously incarcerated still retain the right to vote. Those who are currently serving time for a felony cannot vote.

“That’s a little bit more nuanced than just a blanket ‘If you’ve ever been to jail, you can’t vote,’” Sophia Hall said.

“The VOTES Act is talking about the burden on the corrections management to ensure that people who still retain the right have the ability and the access to what they need to ensure that they can vote,” she told the Banner in an interview after the hearing.

The VOTES bill also supports same-day registration, fairly similar to Secretary of State William Galvin’s proposal, S.468. Galvin’s bill proposes more limited same-day registration for people who miss the registration deadline, but only on Election Day.

“We often have many citizens who find themselves having missed the deadline … And that’s unfortunate. I’d much rather we have a process in place that allows people to register and vote on Election Day,” Galvin said during the hearing.

Key elements of the proposal, filed by Sen. Barry Feingold for Galvin, include no-excuse vote-by-mail for all elections; moving the deadline for vote-by-mail up to seven days before the election; allowing family members to turn in absentee ballots; and expanding early in-person voting. He is focused on fixing the more administrative problems polling places ran into during the November election.

“You can have all the laws in the world. But if they’re not properly and well administered, you won’t get the result that we got,” Galvin said.

Many of those who testified, including Galvin and MassVOTE representatives, said they believe that whatever the cost of these initiatives turns out to be, it will be money well spent.

The next step for activists is to push legislators to report the VOTES Act favorably out of the Joint Committee on Election Laws that held the hearing and get it to the governor’s desk and have these protocols made permanent.

Massachusetts elections, voting reforms