BOSTON — The House and Senate are poised this week to approve compromise early voting and vote-by-mail legislation that should pave the way for a major expansion of options ahead of the 2020 election to encourage participation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All six lawmakers appointed to find a compromise on the bill signed onto a report Monday, including Republicans Rep. Brad Hill and Sen. Ryan Fattman. Rep. John Lawn, the lead House negotiator on the bill, said he anticipates a vote of the full House on the final bill Tuesday while the Senate plans to take it up Thursday, according to a spokesperson for the Senate president's office.
"Hopefully we'll take this up tomorrow and then to the Senate and get it to the governor as soon as possible," Lawn said.
The House and Senate versions of the bill instruct the secretary of state's office to mail every voter an application to request a mail-in ballot for the primaries on Sept. 1 and the general election on Nov. 3. The goal, lawmakers have said, is to continue in-person voting but to allow voters cast their votes early if they wish or to avoid the polls altogether if they feel unsafe due to virus transmission risks.
The bill also for the first time in Massachusetts creates an early voting window before the statewide primary, and expands early voting before the general election. The state's in-person early voting period for the general election runs from Oct. 17-30 and from Aug. 22-28 for the primaries. The mail-in early voting period will begin as soon as local clerks receive all the necessary materials.
The legislation went to conference committee June 18 after the two branches diverged on application mailing methods and limitations to when local clerks could change polling locations. The final deal would have registered voters receive two applications to request mail-in ballots: one will be mailed by July 15 for the primary election, and another in September for those who want to vote by mail in the general election.
The conference committee opted against a Senate plan to use the voter information guides that are sent every election by Secretary of State William Galvin to households around the state as a vehicle to deliver one of the applications.
"We're trying to have it be as clear as possible so people aren't calling clerks and getting confused," Lawn said.
The six members of the committee also agreed to let local clerks change the location of a polling station up to 20 days before the election, which reflects what was in the Senate version of the bill. The idea is to give election officials some flexibility to respond if there were to be an outbreak of COVID-19 at a school or in another building that doubles as a polling location.
"We just really want to be very careful about disenfranchising voters," Finegold said Monday. "Originally the House had 15, we had 20. I think we all came to an agreement that the more notice, the better."
The new legislation negotiated by the committee includes language that directs local officials to evaluate and report on whether changing a polling place would have a "disparate adverse impact" on access to the polls on the basis of race, national origin, disability, income or age. Officials would need to make the report publicly available online and in the clerk's office three days prior to changing the polling location.
House and Senate leaders also agreed on a section mandating that the secretary of state create an online portal for voters to request an early or absentee ballot for the general election and, if feasible, for the primaries. The legislation gives the office no later than Oct. 1 to implement an operational system.
"If the secretary of state can create the online portal in a timely manner that will help to reduce the clerks' workload. Ideally, by September 1 although I know that will be hard," Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said. "We do have other portals in Massachusetts where voters can access their personal information ... so this is just another function that would be added to those online portals that already exist. So hopefully not a bridge too far. "
The final version of the bill was negotiated by Lawn, Finegold and Reps. Michael Moran of Boston and Hill for the House, and, Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton, and Sen. Fattman.
After nearly two weeks of negotiating behind closed doors, the "jacket," or cover sheet that must be signed by members of the conference committee before a report is filed with the clerk to signal agreement, was picked up Monday morning from the House clerk.
"The legislation that the conference committee agreed on isn't perfect, but it does what it needs to — help brace our elections for COVID19," said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager at MassVOTE, in a statement to the News Service. "Though we are disappointed that explicit protections were not implemented to protect polling places in low-income communities and communities of color, the legislation still takes strong steps to not only expand voting via mail and in-person, but educate voters as to how our elections will function this fall."
The House approved its own version of the bill on June 4 and the Senate followed suit on June 16 after dealing with a combined 68 amendments.
A new Suffolk University poll for WGBH News, the State House News Service, The Boston Globe and MassLive found that just 24.8 percent of voters expect to vote by mail this fall, while 61.4 percent said they would vote in person and almost 12 percent said they were undecided.
The poll taken June 18-21 also found that Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to be interested in the vote-by-mail option. Thirty-two percent of Democrats said they would vote by mail, compared to just 6 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of unenrolled voters.
"We think this kind of legislation is the best way to allow people to vote safely and to minimize those problems but a pandemic creates its own set of problems and this is a big change in a short amount of time," Wilmot said, referring to electoral snafus seen in other states.