Priority in Mass. vote-by-mail bill: Improving the mail itself

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, had two amendements includied in vote-by-mail legislation: One requires the secretary of state to develop a new postmarking system, and the other allows voters to list a mailing address other than their residential address.

PITTSFIELD — As Massachusetts seeks to expand vote-by-mail options through a bill the Senate passed Tuesday, it's had to work on improving the mailing process.

The Senate, which approved the bill by a 40-0 vote, adopted 14 amendments, including two concerning the mailing of ballot applications from state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. Hinds' amendments require the secretary of state to develop a new postmarking system to identify ballots mailed by Election Day, and allow voters to list a mailing address other than their residential address. The Senate bill is a new version of one passed by the House on June 4, and it would have all registered voters receive applications for voting by mail in this fall's primary and general elections.

The current postmarking system "could result in discarding tens of thousands of ballots," Hinds said in a speech delivered remotely to the Senate floor. The bill calls for ballots to be postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3.

"The problem is very often the postmark is not legible," he told the Eagle, "and some types of mail — for instance, metered mail — are not postmarked at all."

The amendment tasks the secretary of state with creating a "unique" postmarking system for this year's elections.

Hinds' other amendment requires ballot applications to ask voters to designate a mailing address for their ballot to be sent. In many rural communities, residential addresses differ from mailing addresses.

"So this says now that we have an online portal and we'll have other mechanisms for requesting where you will be able to put in your own address, even if it is a P.O. box," he said.

Hinds said the amendment pursues the "same concept" as an amendment filed in the House by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

"Our language about the mailing addresses is actually in the legislation, which is critically important," Pignatelli told The Eagle. "It shows that the Senate agreed with the House. Since the timing is very critical, let's keep it moving and get it to the governor."

The revised bill now heads back to the House.

Last Thursday, Common Cause Massachusetts and more than 80 state organizations signed a letter urging the Senate to adopt three amendments, all of which were adopted Tuesday.

The groups backed Hinds' amendment on postmarking, one from state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, on the creation of an online application portal and one from state Sen. Joanne Comerford, D-Northampton, that extends the deadline to submit mail-in ballot applications to four days before to Election Day.

While the House version of the bill had included a call for the secretary of state to create an online portal, Lesser's amendment used "stronger language," said Kristina Mensik, assistant director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

"We feel that that is one of the most important pieces of this bill, both for access to voters but also it's really important to ensure Massachusetts doesn't look like Wisconsin or Georgia," Mensik said, referring to widely circulated videos of crowds at elections in those states.

While it supported other amendments, Common Cause prioritized the three it saw as "the most important for making this bill as strong as possible and ensuring it can be passed as quickly as possible," Mensik said.

Hinds also said reforms may have been more ambitious if not for the urgency of passing the bill.

"There are so many things we would be doing differently if we had a longer runway, making this an even more robust process that would support clerks," he said.

A withdrawn amendment filed by state Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, would have mailed ballots to all registered voters, a reform both Hinds and Common Cause Massachusetts leaders said they would push for at a later date.

Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said that while she believes mailing ballots to all would be the "most efficient system," she recognizes the barriers to setting it up in time this year.

"We've heretofore done very little voting by mail, and the sort of transition to a full mail system is something that typically takes many, many years," she said. "We certainly are pushing for this reform in many places, but politics is the art of the possible."

"We have a huge task ahead of us in terms of voter registration and education and outreach," Mensik added. "We really need all hands on deck and as much time as possible, just ensuring that every would-be voter is actually a voter this fall ... because these elections could not come at more important a time."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports and 413-496-6221.