Massachusetts vote-by-mail provisions extended through June as lawmakers mull permanent changes

Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday put his signature on a three-month extension for mail-in voting, setting the table for a debate on Beacon Hill to make the temporary provisions permanent.

“It is my hope that the Legislature will act as soon as possible on my proposal to make voting by mail an option for all future elections, so that voters, election officials, and campaigns can prepare accordingly for this fall’s city elections,” Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin said.

The announcement came from Galvin’s office rather than from the governor’s office where news of bill signings typically comes from.

The extension means provisions allowing no-excuse mail-in voting will remain in place through June 30, when more than 200 municipal elections take place.

Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, who chairs the Senate Committee on Election Laws said he expects to start sifting through legislation to make changes that expanded mail-in voting and early in-person voting amid the pandemic permanent soon. Public hearings will be held in May or June, he said.

“I’m hoping this will be bipartisan with input from the Secretary of the Commonwealth, with Democrats, Republicans and done in a fashion where we make sure we have the fairest and most cost-effective approach,” said Finegold, who has filed a bill to make the temporary provisions permanent.

Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, said over the weekend it “makes more sense” to make the provisions permanent rather than keep doing extensions. Her VOTES Act bill with Rep. John Lawn, D-Watertown, has earned 94 co-signors so far.

But the Republican caucus has already come out in opposition to many of the changes.

A bill filed by Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, suggests a permanent expansion of vote-by-mail is contrary to the state’s constitution.

Rep. David DeCoste, R-Norwell, who co-sponsored the bill, said “there are constitutional provisions that need to be observed” when changing voting laws and argued mail-in voting is “the most susceptible to fraud.”

“The pandemic seems to be easing up. We’ve made allowances in the law for elections in the spring and early summer, but after that, there’s no indication that we’ll need this anymore,” DeCoste said.

Local election officials say there needs to be more discussion about manpower, money and technology in order to make the system work long-term.

“I’m not sure if I want the law extended or not,” Easthampton City Clerk Barbara LaBombard told the Herald in an email, adding that it “means a lot of extra work and expenses” she hasn’t budgeted for in the upcoming fiscal year.

The exact cost of permanent vote-by-mail to municipalities will depend on what law lawmakers ultimately adopt and how much of the tab they require the state to pick up.

Last year, Galvin’s office covered the cost of postal permit fees so that voters didn’t have to pay for postage on their ballots — a cost of over $250,000, his office said.

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