Pandemic-era voting accessibility clears way for ballot access in Massachusetts

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There is clear evidence that pandemic-era changes to voting options in Massachusetts gave people more time to vote and allowed them to cast ballots in different ways, said Matt DeRienzo of the Center for Public Integrity.

"That's good for democracy, and in theory, gives us a more accurate reflection of what the people want," said DeRienzo, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit investigative news organization that focuses on government accountability.

He is referring to conveniences such as voting by mail and in-person early voting options, which were developed in Massachusetts over the past few years after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Early in-person voting was permanently signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on June 22.

Not everyone can get to the polls on Election Day because of work schedules, child care or maybe they are a caregiver to someone, DeRienzo said.

"The system of allowing it (voting) in one short window, is one that has precluded many people in the past," he said. "These changes are really leveling the playing field."

To get those changes forged into law, Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said the Election Modernization Coalition

was formed in January 2021 by a group of voting rights organizations, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause, League of Women Voters, Mass Vote, Lawyers for Civil Rights, MASSPIRG and the Massachusetts Voter Table.

Coalition members began meeting with lawmakers to develop ways to remove barriers to voting and provide more opportunities for voting access in Massachusetts.

The result was the VOTES Act — a comprehensive bill, said Foster, that includes reforms centered around access, equity and best practice in voting laws.

Copies of the VOTES Act signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on display as the Election Modernization Coalition gathered at the Statehouse July 6 to celebrate its passage.
Copies of the VOTES Act signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on display as the Election Modernization Coalition gathered at the Statehouse July 6 to celebrate its passage.

"On the immediate heels of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the coalition was seeing many states move legislation that made it harder for their citizens to vote," he said. "There was great support from the Legislature to move Massachusetts in the right direction."

Not only did the VOTES Act push through its vote-by-mail initiatives, and in-person early voting, but it also created new jail-based voting provisions, which will take effect in January 2023. At that time, there will be systems put in place for the 7,000 to 9,000 eligible incarcerated voters across the state.

"The VOTES Act is a huge win for voter access and equity and democracy overall," Foster said.

What's on the horizon for Massachusetts voters

While the VOTES Act made 2020 election reforms permanent in 2022, Foster said, same-day voter registration was removed from the VOTES Act right before the House debate. The reform has been adopted in 25 states, including Delaware and Virginia.

"Our effort to advocate to restore it was unsuccessful," he said.

Not to be discouraged, Foster said same-day voter registration is still on the horizon and is one of the strongest components in regard to equity reforms in Massachusetts.

Provincial ballot data, developed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found disparities in cities because people are renting more and changing their addresses more frequently, said Foster. Same-day voter registration would increase voter turnout for Black and Latino voters in Massachusetts, he said.

"We have never seen this much support for it and we are excited to see a bill re-filed next session," Foster said. "It's a game changer."

While DeRienzo is optimistic about a wider array of options for voters, he also thinks there are areas where Massachusetts voting laws can improve. While some "red states," he said, are actively disenfranchising voters with strict voter identification policies, or drop box bans, voting access in Massachusetts isn't yet equitable for all people.

"By-mail voting is great, but if you don’t have access to reliable mail service — it puts you at a disadvantage," he said. "Or if there are drop boxes in your neighborhood that are very convenient for you, but in other neighborhoods, you can’t find one, that’s not equitable. It can show up in terms of what communities have the ability to vote."

How to register

Massachusetts residents may submit an application to register or pre-register to vote in Massachusetts if they are U.S. citizens, at least 16 years old and not currently incarcerated by reason of a felony conviction.

If you meet the requirements, you may apply online (, by mail, or in person.

The deadline to register to vote in any election or town meeting is 10 days prior to the date of the election or meeting.

If you are a new citizen who was naturalized after the last day to register to vote, you may register to vote in person at your local election office until 4 p.m. on the day before the election. You should bring documentation to show that your naturalization ceremony occurred after the voter registration deadline.

Contact Rachael Devaney at Follow her on Twitter: @RachaelDevaney.

Contact Sarah Carlon at Follow her on Twitter: @sarcarlon

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: MA voter access expands after legislature adopts pandemic measures