Senate Set to Consider Landmark Voting Reform Bill

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Legislation makes vote-by-mail permanent, expands early voting options, implements same-day voter registration, and ushers in other groundbreaking election reforms

(BOSTON –9/30/21) Today, the Massachusetts State Senate unveiled S.2545, An Act fostering voter opportunities, trust, equity and security (the VOTES Act). This comprehensive voting reform bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), would permanently codify the popular mail-in and early voting options used in Massachusetts in 2020. The bill would also enact same-day voter registration and make a series of other improvements to the Commonwealth’s election administration process.

The VOTES Act takes crucial steps to expand the right to vote in Massachusetts at a time when states across the country are rolling back voting rights: since the start of this year, 18 states have passed 30 laws limiting voter access. The Senate bill would also take steps to align the Commonwealth with potential changes to national voting laws by including multiple provisions, such as same-day voter registration and no-excuse voting by mail, which were included in the For the People Act, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year.

The Legislature previously enacted legislation to temporarily extend vote-by-mail and early voting options through December 15, 2021.

“True representative democracy is a perpetual work in progress, requiring vigilance on the part of citizens and constant attention from lawmakers,” stated Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “One of the few silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we had the chance to prove that the voting reforms that so many have advocated for can and do work. As too many states across our nation seek to limit voting rights, I’m proud that the Massachusetts Senate can show the power of not only protecting but expanding voters’ access to the ballot box. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Senate Majority Leader Creem, Senate Ways and Means Chair Rodrigues, Election Laws Committee Chair Finegold for their tireless efforts on the VOTES Act, as well as the voting rights advocates who never gave up the fight.”

“At this time in our country’s history, we know now, more than ever, how critical it is to ensure that all voices are heard in our democracy. And this bill embraces that ideal,” said Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem (D. Newton). “The provisions of this bill will increase voter participation and modernize our voter registration system while maintaining an efficient and secure election process. Voters want, and deserve, to have these options available to them in our future elections.”

“This landmark legislation removes barriers to the ballot box and makes voting more accessible than ever for all citizens of Massachusetts,” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways & Means. “Making sure everyone has the ability to vote is one of the most important things we can do as legislators, and I am proud of the collaborative and cooperative effort that resulted in this bill. Thank you to Senate President Spilka for her continued leadership, and Senators Creem and Finegold for their steadfast advocacy to further enshrine the right to vote into the fabric of our Commonwealth.”

“This landmark election reform bill will empower voters and strengthen our democracy,” said Senator Barry Finegold (D - Andover), Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Election Laws. “In 2020, mail-in and early voting options helped generate record-breaking turnout. It is now time to build on the progress we have already made and make permanent improvements to our elections. The Senate’s proposed legislation will move our election system into the modern era and help make sure that every voter can exercise their fundamental right to vote.”

In the 2020 general election, more people voted than ever before in Massachusetts. Approximately 3.66 million residents cast ballots, totaling 76% of all registered voters. Voters took advantage of new voting options: 42% of voters voted by mail and another 23% voted in person during early voting windows. Similarly, over 1.7 million people voted in last year’s state primary, the highest number of voters ever in a state primary. Close to half of all voters voted by mail during the primary.

“I commend the Senate on proposing these critical election reforms,” stated Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. “Across the country, we are seeing bills advance in state legislatures that threaten the freedom to vote and would bring our country back to historic levels of disenfranchisement. Here in Massachusetts, it is essential that we take these important steps to protect the freedom to vote and to ensure the accessibility and security of our elections.”

“The VOTES Act is a landmark election reform package that will make our democracy more accessible and equitable. It removes barriers to voting and strengthens our election infrastructure,” stated Geoff Foster, Executive Director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “After everything our democracy has been through this last year, the time for these reforms is now.”

“When voting rights are under attack around the country, we’re grateful to the leaders in our state Senate and House who know this is the moment for Massachusetts to do all we can to strengthen equitable access to the ballot for all,” stated Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

“We are so glad to see that the Massachusetts Senate is expanding voting rights at a time when these rights are under attack nationally,” stated Juan M. Cofield, President of NAACP, the New England Area Conference. “Our Commonwealth is stronger when more people are able to vote, and the VOTES Act provides even more voting opportunities for all people to make their voices heard. This legislation will also work toward eliminating the barriers that have historically limited the right to vote among Black communities and communities of color.”

“Not all voters have equal access to the ballot in Massachusetts. The VOTES Act seeks to address the many challenges that voters face and to make our democracy even stronger,” stated Beth Huang, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Voter Table.

“At a moment when there are so many intractable problems that face us; here's a bill—the VOTES Act—that gives us solutions: it takes down barriers to voting and makes democracy more accessible to more Bay Staters. Doesn't that sound glorious?” stated Janet Domenitz, Executive Director of MASSPIRG.

“We’re thrilled to see the Senate take this critical step,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, Executive Director of MassVOTE. “Massachusetts is one step closer to passing voting reforms that will make our elections dramatically more accessible and inclusive.”

“The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts is delighted the Senate will take up a strong voting bill that includes same-day voter registration along with the expanded mail and in-person early voting that produced record turnout last fall,” stated Patricia Comfort, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts. “At a time when far too many states are actively limiting access to the ballot box, we are proud that the Massachusetts Senate is moving to make voting easier and even more accessible in our state.”

Responding to trends in voting and building off previous actions taken by the Legislature, the VOTES Act contains the following key provisions:

Same-Day Voter Registration

Individuals would be able to register to vote during early voting periods or on the day of a primary or election.
Twenty other states and the District of Columbia already use same-day registration.

Early Voting In-Person

The bill would require two weeks (including two weekends) of early voting in-person for biennial state elections and any municipal elections held on the same day.
The bill would require one week (including one weekend) of early voting in-person for a presidential or state primary and any municipal elections held on the same day.
The bill would allow municipalities to opt-in to early voting in-person for any municipal election not held concurrently with another election.

Permanent No-Excuse Mail-In Voting

The bill would require the Secretary of the Commonwealth to send out mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters on July 15 of every even-numbered year; the Secretary of the Commonwealth would have the option to include these applications as part of mailings already required to be sent by the Secretary.
As in 2020, postage would be guaranteed for mail-in ballot applications and ballots.
As in 2020, mail-in ballots would be accepted for a biennial state election if mailed on or by election day and received by 5PM on the third day after the election.

Additional Flexibility For Local Officials

The bill would give municipalities the option to set up secure drop boxes for mail-in ballots.
The bill would allow election officials to pre-process mail-in and early voting ballots in advance of Election Day.
The bill would give municipalities discretion as to the use of a check-out list at a polling location.

Accommodations For People With Disabilities

The bill would allow a voter with disabilities to request accommodations from the Secretary of the Commonwealth to vote by mail for state elections.
Accommodations would include: electronic and accessible instructions, ballot application, ballot, and a voter affidavit that can be submitted electronically.

Jail-Based Voting Reforms

The bill would help ensure that individuals who are incarcerated who are currently eligible to vote are provided with voting information and materials to exercise their right to vote in every state primary and election.
The bill would require correctional facilities to display and distribute information about voting rights and procedures, as prepared by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
The bill would require facilities to assist individuals who are incarcerated in registering, applying for and returning mail ballots.

Joining the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC)

The bill would require the Secretary of the Commonwealth to enter into an agreement with ERIC no later than July 1, 2022.
Thirty other states have already joined ERIC, which helps states keep more accurate voting rolls.

The Senate will debate and vote on the VOTES Act during a formal session on Wednesday, October 6, 2021.