Gov. Charlie Baker signed the VOTES Act into law this week, permanently codifying expanded voter access first made popular in Massachusetts during 2020, following recent votes by the Senate and House approving the legislation earlier this session. This sweeping voter reform encompasses a number of programs and supports to increase voter access, including mail-in and early voting.
“Democracy is a process through which everyone has a voice. We need to ensure those voices are being heard,” said Sen. John F. Keenan in a statement. “These provisions have made voting so much easier and efficient for so many Massachusetts residents, ultimately steering us toward a more representative and responsive government. Getting more people involved in the process will allow elected officials to get a better sense of what our constituents want.”
Thanks to expanded voter access, Massachusetts saw record high voter turnouts in 2020. Approximately 3.6 million residents cast ballots in 2020, totaling 76% of all registered voters. More than 40% of voters cast ballots by mail in the 2020 general election, with another 23% participating during early voting. Similarly, more than 1.7 million people voted in the 2020 state primary, the highest number of voters ever in a state primary. Close to half of all voters voted by mail during the primary.
“Instead of a mass mailing of ballots as some believe and which I am opposed to, Massachusetts voters will now be able to receive a mail-in ballot through a simple application process, making voting more inclusive,” said Sen. Keenan. “Voters who are physically unable to get to a polling place and voters with inflexible work schedules will now have fewer barriers to participating in the democratic process.”
The VOTES Act encompasses the following components:
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 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 Secretary of the Commonwealth 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 voting in-person
- 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 early voting.
- 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 Secretary of the Commonwealth, 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 Secretary of the Commonwealth.
- Moves the voter registration deadline from 20 to 10 days before a preliminary, primary, or election.
- Requires the Secretary of the Commonwealth’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 can exercise their voting rights.
- Requires correctional facilities to display and distribute voter education and election information materials as prepared by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
- Requires facilities to assist individuals who are incarcerated and may be eligible to vote in registering, applying for and returning mail-in ballots.
- Requires Secretary of the Commonwealth 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.
Flexibility for local officials and improvements to election administration
- Gives municipalities the option to set up secure drop boxes for mail-in ballots.
- Allows election officials to pre-process mail-in and early voting ballots (by opening up envelopes and verifying signatures in advance of Election Day).
- Eases the process by which election officials can appoint and fill vacancies in poll workers.
- Gives municipalities discretion as to the use of check-out lists at polling locations.
- Requires the Secretary of the Commonwealth to join the Electronic Registration Information Center by July 1 to help Massachusetts keep more accurate voting rolls.
- Instructs the Secretary of the Commonwealth to conduct a comprehensive public awareness campaign to highlight the provisions in the bill.
Preparations by the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office are now underway to ensure provisions covered by the VOTES Act will be in effect in time for the September primary.