PITTSFIELD — Before the Massachusetts House voted Thursday to pass a bill expanding voting access for this year's elections, Western Massachusetts representatives moved to ensure rural voters would also benefit.
The House on Wednesday adopted an amendment introduced by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, to guarantee absentee ballot applications could be sent to voters' mailing addresses, such as post office boxes. While the original language of the bill limited mailing to residential addresses, residents in many Berkshire communities don't have residential mailing.
"My resolution is very simple: that applications should be sent to the address where people actually get their mail," he said, adding that he has a residence in Lenox where he has never received mail. "It's great to expand voting access to combat the effects of COVID-19, but let's not leave anybody out."
The bill, which was adopted Thursday evening by a vote of 155-1, will now move to the Senate. It would expand mail-in voting options in light of safety concerns brought by the coronavirus pandemic. It would require Secretary of State William Galvin to send mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter by July 15 and to create an online portal for applications, provisions expected to alleviate the workload of city and town clerks.Early in-person voting would extend to a seven-day period before the primary elections and a 14-day period before the general election, while in-person voting on Election Day remains an option.
"Never has the role of being the bridge between our district and the Statehouse been more important, and we have met that challenge," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, on Thursday in a speech supporting the bill. "Today we take up what can only be called a sacred responsibility: protecting our democracy."
The House on Thursday voted to adopt Farley-Bouvier's amendment pushing back the voter registration cutoff to 10 days before Election Day.
"The whole point is to have as many options for people as possible and to make sure there's as much access as possible," said Farley-Bouvier, a member of the Joint Committee on Election Laws.
An amendment that was not adopted, however, may have improved equality of vote-by-mail access, said Pignatelli, a co-sponsor. Introduced by state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, the amendment would have mandated the mailing of all applications and ballots to be done by first-class mail. First-class mail tends to be more reliable, particularly for post office boxes, Pignatelli said.
"This is too important a time," he said, noting the amendment would have increased postage expenditures. "I just don't want anyone calling me saying `I didn't get it,' or `It didn't get here in time.' "
He nevertheless expressed confidence in the secretary of state's ability to mail ballots and applications successfully.
State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, gave a speech backing the bill during the Wednesday session, during which he requested additional funding from the federal and state levels for the bill's implementation in municipalities, particularly the "smallest and most fiscally constrained towns."
The election laws committee wanted the bill to focus on reforms for the 2020 elections as an emergency response to the pandemic, Farley-Bouvier said, although future legislation may tackle long-term reform. State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said he believes the changes "will eventually become permanent."
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he hopes the bill can serve as "a pilot for how the state can use vote by mail."
"I'm someone who supports vote by mail in any year," he said. "In states that are already implementing it, it's been shown to increase voter participation and increase voter education because they can do the research when the ballot is in front of them."
As a "committee bill," H.4768 assembled parts of other bills that were submitted previously. Some bill proposals asked for mail-in ballots to be sent to all eligible voters, but those did not make it into the final bill. Critics cited security concerns if voters were registered at a residence where they were no longer living, as well as uncertainty over which primary ballot to send unaffiliated voters.
Farley-Bouvier said the bill sought to ensure city and town clerks would not be "overburdened," and Barrett said he believes future legislation should take additional measures to support clerks "because they're out there and should have a say in this."
Pittsfield City Clerk Michele Benjamin predicts her office will spend "more than double or triple" the number of hours it worked for 2016's elections. She said she has spoken with Farley-Bouvier but is still waiting to hear more from the secretary of state.
"I guess the safest place to vote this year is in your own home, and the state is trying to make that accessible by mailing out those applications," she said. "It will in turn put a great deal of extra work on the city and town clerks and staff."
Stockbridge Town Clerk Terry Iemolini said she is familiar with the bill and believes "everything is warranted." She said she'd also like to be able to tabulate early votes before Election Day and to have early and absentee voting merged into one process.
She added that while she thinks expanded mail-in options would help voters, in-person voting will remain available.
"We're going to be doing all we can to keep it safe this year," she said.