In the aftermath of an election that broke turnout records, advocates in Massachusetts are continuing efforts to expand access to the ballot.
Added options for voting by mail, which the Massachusetts Legislature adopted this year because of coronavirus pandemic-related safety concerns, have strong support to be made permanent. Advocates and lawmakers also are pushing for Election Day voter registration, as well as improving translation for non-English speakers and resources for incarcerated voters.
More than 2.3 million of the projected 3.6 million Massachusetts voters cast their ballots by mail this month, setting records for mail-in voting and overall turnout.
Some of the issues that raised fears, such as overloading the U.S. Postal Service, did not come to pass, said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, making for a relatively smooth election.
Further legislative action, Wilmot hopes, will make mail-in voting in Massachusetts permanent.
“Many states have had no-excuse absentee voting for a long time, and it’s way past time that we make that 100 percent clear,” Wilmot said. “That doesn’t mean we can get rid of the in-person process, which is available to everyone as well.”
Beyond mail, establishing Election Day voter registration is a top priority.
Each election cycle, voters get turned away at the polls if they have moved and did not update their residence from the previous cycle.
A key challenge for voting reform is that lawmakers can find themselves distanced from the challenges voters of different backgrounds face, said Sophia Hall, supervising attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston.
“When I talk to legislators, I tell them, ‘When you talk about election reform, you can’t talk about the perspective of you or anyone sitting here,’ ” Hall said.
In some countries, an independent commission will preside over election laws, making for “less interference from the people being elected,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
“It’s kind of an odd system where the politicians and elected officials are the ones making the laws about who has the ability to vote and participate,” Hinds said. “It’s mind-boggling how your rights and accessibility vary depending on your ZIP code in this country.”
Massachusetts was one of few states to allow residents to vote while in prison, until a 2000 ballot question took away that right from those convicted of a felony.
Yet, residents incarcerated pretrial or on misdemeanor convictions continue to have the right to vote, although few are familiar with eligibility laws.
Some elected officials did not know eligible incarcerated voters were specially qualified, meaning that they can vote without registering, said Kristina Mensik, assistant director for Common Cause Massachusetts. As a result, incarcerated voters have their absentee ballot applications rejected at a disproportionate rate.
Mensik leads the Election Protection Behind Bars coalition, which seeks “to ensure that the right to vote is actually meaningful” for incarcerated voters. The coalition urged sheriffs in October to provide “eligibility information, ballot applications, key dates and reminders, and candidate information” at correctional facilities.
Many returning residents, Mensik added, don’t realize they have regained the right to vote once they no longer are incarcerated.
Another area for improvement, Hall said, is to expand voting access for residents who speak a language other than English.
While the Voting Rights Act requires a few jurisdictions in Massachusetts to provide translation for voting materials, Hall said, more potential voters could benefit from those resources than currently do.
One Statehouse bill proposes to phonetically spell the name of candidates in languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet.
“It’s still a big disconnect for people who can’t read English at all,” Hall said. “If the commonwealth was really serious about equitable access to democracy by providing non-English language speakers the same resources, that could be something that could show its commitment.”
Many voting reform advocates, including Common Cause Massachusetts, also backed ranked-choice voting, which failed on a ballot question this year.
Hinds said he plans to support legislation to help make voting as universal as possible in future sessions.
“Voting is such a central part of our democracy,” he said, “and we should make it easier for citizens to participate.”