An act relative to voting options in response to COVID-19 (H.4762)

An act relative to voting options in response to COVID-19 (H.4762)

Public Statement
Date of Release or Mention: 
Monday, June 8, 2020

Dear Chair Aaron Michlewitz, Vice Chair Denise C. Garlick, Assistant Vice Chair Elizabeth A. Malia, and Ranking Minority Member Todd M. Smola

This email pertains to H. No. 4762 which we understand is scheduled for a vote on June 3.

On May 19, 2020, the Town of Falmouth conducted a municipal and special election under the special COVID-19 rules then in effect.  Turnout of approximately 25% was comparable to municipal elections in the past.  Measured by those terms, it was reasonably successful.  However, with over half the voters opting to vote by mail, the burden on our town clerk’s office was unimaginable.   Were this a national election with an 80% turnout, the system would have been overwhelmed.  It is essential to put better rules in place for this fall.

 An act relative to voting options in response to COVID-19 (H.4762) partially addresses the problem and we, the Falmouth League of Women Voters, strongly support it.  However, we believe, before passage, it should be amended to include the following as discussed in more detail below:

  • Allow election officials to process mail-in ballots before election day.
  • For the general election, count all ballots mailed before election day.
  • Include return postage for ballots (and for applications if possible).
  • Protect voters from disenfranchisement if a ballot application is undeliverable.

Ballot Counting:  Ballot Counting is the area where H.4762 is seriously deficient.  The bill should be amended so that absentee ballots received before the election or the primary can be scanned at a central location at any time so long as no results were determined or announced before the close of polls. Criminal penalties can be set for violation of the secrecy requirement.  Under the present system, voting officials physically transfer absentee ballots to the appropriate precinct when the polls are open and scan them there. Having to scan large numbers of ballots on election day is untenable and caused great difficulty here in Falmouth on May 19.  Also, for the general election, ballots should be counted if they are postmarked no later than the Nov. 3 election day.  Voters should not lose their vote by postal delays at a time when the postal system is likely to be overloaded due to mail-in balloting. 

Obtaining Ballot Applications and Ballots

Under H.4762, the Secretary of State would send absentee ballots applications for both the primary and general election to all registered voters in Massachusetts.  The town clerk’s offices would still carry a very heavy burden, having to process the applications, mail out the ballots, and process them.  However, they at least would be largely spared the task of mailing out the applications.  Also a statewide Internet portal with a tracking function hopefully would serve as an alternate means of applying for absentee ballots.  

We strongly urge that this procedure be improved in two ways.   First, the ballot applications sent by the Secretary of State should include return postage for the ballots and, if possible, for the applications.  Here in Falmouth there was confusion regarding the amount of postage required.  In view of the pandemic, voters are reluctant to visit the post office if they do not have appropriate stamps.  Second, return of absentee ballots as undeliverable should not be a basis to challenge voters or remove them from the voter rolls.  Errors in addressing can easily occur and should not automatically deprive voters of the opportunity to vote.

While we of the Falmouth League of Women Voters strongly support the proposed amendments to H.4762 that we have outlined above, we also applaud the improvements regarding the availability of absentee ballot applications.  In addition, we applaud the provisions in the bill regarding early-in-person voting and the staffing of polling places, which are summarized below. 

Early In-Person Voting:  Early in-person voting was not available in Falmouth on May 19 so we are pleased to see that, if H.4762 is passed, it would be available under state law for both the primary and the general election in the fall.  Early in-person voting would likely reduce the number of voters voting by mail or voting in person on the polling day, thereby reducing pressure on town clerk’s offices

Polling Places:  Our Town Clerk’s office had difficulty in staffing polling places on May 19.  H.4762 does much to alleviate this staffing problem by relaxing requirements for poll workers and by eliminating the need for a separate checkout desk. 

In sum, the League of Women Voters of Falmouth urges the passage of H.4762 but believes that it is very important to first strengthen the bill by adding the amendments outlined above regarding 1) central processing of ballots, 2) use of postmark in general election to determine if ballot is timely received, 3) provision of return postage, and 4) protection against automatic disenfranchisement in connection with mailed ballot applications.

We thank you for your attention and consideration,

Very truly yours,

For the League of Women Voters of Falmouth

Sylvia L. Szulkin, Steering Committee Chair, 15 Summerwind Lane, N. Falmouth, MA  02556 (508-564-4425)
Judith S. Ziss, Legislative Committee Chair, 149 Cliffwood Lane, Falmouth, MA  02540  (508-548-1339)
Carol McKeon, Outgoing Voter Services Chair, 1 North Bournes Pond Road, E. Falmouth, MA  02536 (617-680-0447)
Jenny Putnam, Incoming Voter Services Chair, 170 Bay Branch Way, E. Falmouth, MA 02536 (508-274-6392)


Cc:  Representative David Vieira, Representative Dylan Fernandes, Senator Susan Moran

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Legislative CommitteeVoter Service Committee
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