How Democracy Should Work in the Wake of the Pandemic

In the wake of the COVID19 pandemic, MASSPIRG, a founding member of the Election Modernization Coalition, has called for a set of reforms---some new (health protections in place at polling places) and some that have been pending for years and are more important than ever---like election day registration. Here are two coalition letters which were sent to Secretary William Galvin, Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka in early April, listing out our agenda forhow democracy should work in the wake of the pandemic.

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Janet Domenitz
Executive Director

Author: Janet Domenitz

Executive Director

(617) 747-4320

Started on staff: 1980
B.A., magna cum laude, Brandeis University.

Janet has been the executive director of MASSPIRG since 1990 and directs programs on consumer protection, zero waste and recycling, health and safety, public transportation, and voter participation. Janet has co-founded or led coalitions, including Earth Day Greater Boston, Campaign to Update the Bottle Bill and the Election Modernization Coalition. Janet serves as vice president for the Consumer Federation of America; and serves on the Common Cause Massachusetts executive committee, Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow board of directors, and Department of Environmental Protection Solid Waste Advisory Committee. For her work, Janet has received Common Cause’s John Gardner Award and Salem State University’s Friend of the Earth Award. Janet lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband and two sons and every Wednesday morning she slow-runs the steps at Harvard Stadium with the November Project.

Started on staff: 1980
B.A., magna cum laude, Brandeis University.

 

In the wake of the COVID19 pandemic, MASSPIRG, a founding member of the Election Modernization Coalition, has called for a set of reforms---some new (health protections in place at polling places) and some that have been pending for years and are more important than ever---like election day registration. Here are two coalition letters which were sent to Secretary William Galvin, Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka in early April, listing out our agenda forhow democracy should work in the wake of the pandemic.  

William Galvin

Secretary of the Commonwealth

 

Michelle Tassinari

Director and Legal Counsel, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth

Friday April 17, 2020 

Dear Ms. Tassinari and Secretary Galvin,

Last week’s elections in Wisconsin underscored that the challenges of conducting elections in the current pandemic are enormous. There, an unprecedented number of voters requested absentee ballots to avoid the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 or transmitting it by going to the polls and many were unable to cast a ballot because the state elections infrastructure could not handle that surge of requests. It is clear that preparing for a dramatic shift in how we conduct our fall elections will require action now, and considerable funding.

For that reason, we are writing to thank you for applying for all of the funds currently available to Massachusetts under the CARES Act to support measures to secure our fall elections. Under the Act, Massachusetts is eligible for a $8,290,676 grant. However, the Commonwealth must certify that we will match it by spending $1,658,135 on the 2020 federal elections within two years of receiving the funding. These costs can also include those incurred in 2021 so long as they are related to the coronavirus’ impact on the 2020 federal elections. The good news is that the Federal government is very open to all kinds of spending to meet the matching requirement. We also hope that significant additional funding for our state’s elections may be available soon through the next round of stimulus funding.

We thank you for acting quickly to apply for all of the funding currently available. We urge you to consider using it for a wide range of reforms detailed in the attached letter sent to legislators earlier today.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters.

Thank you for your consideration

Sincerely,

Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts

Rahsaan Hall, ACLU of Massachusetts

Janet Domenitz, MASSPIRG,

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, MassVOTE

Beth Huang, Massachusetts Voter Table

Jonathan Cohn, Progressive Massachusetts

Patricia Comfort, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts

Sophia Hall, Lawyers for Civil Rights

 

 

Representative Robert DeLeo

 

Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives

 

 

 

Senator Karen Spilka

 

President of the Massachusetts State Senate

 

 

 

April 17, 2020

 

 

 

Dear Speaker DeLeo, President Spilka, and members of the General Court,

 

 

 

We are writing to you to urge you to swiftly adopt legislation to prepare for the threats that COVID-19 poses to our fall elections. This crisis threatens both public health and our democracy, by keeping voters at home, suppressing registration efforts, and imperiling the health of poll workers. Although we hope that the pandemic will have abated by the fall and that the virus does not resurge, there is no guarantee that this will be the case, and we must take action now to ensure that the fall elections are as safe and participatory as possible. Even if the immediate crisis has passed by then, many Massachusetts voters, especially the immuno-compromised or otherwise at-risk, will still be fearful of public interaction -- and this is the best case scenario.

 

 

 

The emergency legislation you passed last month to protect the spring elections (S.2608) was a strong first step. We urge you to take action now to protect our fall elections as well. Although the state primaries are five months and general elections seven months away, it will take at least that long to implement the necessary reforms, prepare our election officials and polling places for these changes, purchase new equipment, and educate voters. This cannot wait until we know for certain what health and social restrictions will be in place in the fall; it will be too late to adapt if we do so.

 

We urge you to support the following reforms to ensure that all eligible voters can participate in our fall elections while protecting public health in the Commonwealth. Please note that these are all reforms that have been implemented successfully elsewhere and are widely viewed as best case practices even before the pandemic.

 

 

 

Expanded absentee and vote by mail:

 

The legislature must ensure that all eligible voters can participate in our fall elections from the safety of their own homes. S. 2608 took an important step for the spring elections by allowing all eligible voters taking precautions due to COVID-19 to qualify for absentee ballots. We urge you to implement a similar but even more expansive reform for our September state primaries and the November general elections and address several other related issues and believe that mailing a ballot to every voter would be the most efficient and effective way of delivering ballots to voters.

 

In addition, deadlines for the receipt of ballots need to be extended, both to ensure early access to ballots and to ensure that delayed mail does not result in disenfranchisement. Many states are moving to allow ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day, rather than received by that time. This may not be practicable for the primary because of tight printing deadlines, but it can be easily applied to the general election in November.

 

Second, with a projected one million more ballots being cast by mail, it will be impossible to ship them all to polling places for processing on Election Day. Clerks will need authority for central tabulation and ideally for tabulating in advance, during the early voting window.

 

Third, additional funding will be needed for additional equipment, such as high speed scanners. Federal funds that have already been appropriated can pay for this. We also urge you to appropriate money to cover the full cost of mailing ballots to voters and providing postage pre-paid return envelopes. Many people have limited or no access to stamps at this juncture and it is critical that they too be able to cast a ballot. What’s more, sending ballots centrally will greatly reduce pressure on city and town clerks and is the most efficient method of expanding vote by mail. Ballots will still need to be returned locally. There is an 8.2 million dollar federal grant available for this purpose but currently it must be leveraged by a $1.6 million state appropriation. Our national organizations are working to remove this 20% match requirement and to get even more money for the states to use for election changes made as an emergency response to COVID-19. Our Congressional delegation is also working hard to provide additional money for this purpose.

 

Of course, absentee ballots must be available in all languages required by law, including those covered by session laws or Chapter 166 for voting in the City of Boston. 

 

 

 

Protections for In-Person Voting and Poll Workers

 

Mail-in balloting will help keep our elections safe and participatory, but voters must still have the option of casting ballots in person. Sometimes mail fails and voters do not receive their ballots. Sometimes a voter may have spoiled their ballot and need a new one. Voters with disabilities may be unable to mark a paper ballot and need to access the proper, specialized, voting equipment that is available only at polling places. Depending on what kind of vote by mail options are provided, voting in person could be moved to voter centers, saving money and limiting contact between voters and election workers.

 

Regardless of where in-person voting takes place, strong protections must be enacted to ensure that voters who prefer to vote in person – or who do not receive a mail ballot or have errors in their registration – can do so without risking their or the greater public’s health. These protections would include expanding early voting hours and the early voting period to reduce the concentration of voters at any one time and ensuring that polling places practice social distancing (lines with voters spread at least six feet apart, and ample supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and face masks for poll workers).

 

 

 

Voter Registration

 

During the crisis and well after, voter registration efforts will be severely curtailed. Far fewer voters will register at the RMV, and third-party registration efforts at events or door-to-door efforts will be dramatically reduced. Even if the crisis abates by summer and stay-at-home advisories are lifted, we suspect that many eligible voters will avoid close interactions with strangers like approaching a voter registration table.

 

Moreover, the crisis has disrupted voters’ lives and will continue to do so. For many eligible and registered voters, especially those who move before the fall elections, updating voter registration records to reflect their new addresses will likely fall at the bottom of their priority list.

 

We urge you to build on the precedent set by S.2608, which cut the voter registration deadline from 20 days to 10 days, by eliminating the deadline entirely and implementing Election Day Voter Registration (EDR) for Massachusetts’ fall primaries and the general election. EDR is working well in 21 other states and is an important failsafe to help all eligible voters participate.

 

Thank you for taking early steps to protect public health and the democratic process this Spring. We hope you will act swiftly and with great urgency to safeguard our fall elections as well.

 

Sincerely,

 

Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts

 

Rahsaan Hall, ACLU of Massachusetts

 

Janet Domenitz, MASSPIRG,

 

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, MassVOTE

 

Beth Huang, Massachusetts Voter Table

 

Jonathan Cohn, Progressive Massachusetts

 

Patricia Comfort, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts

 

Sophia Hall, Lawyers for Civil Rights

 

Eva A. Millona, MIRA Coalition

 

Frances Moore Lappé, Small Planet Institute

 

Horace Small, Union of Minority Neighborhoods

 

Russell Freedman, Progressive Democrats of America

 

Jacob Stern, Massachusetts Sierra Club

 

Anabel Santiago, Coalition for Social Justice

 

Adam Eichen, Equal Citizen

 

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, Black Directors Network

 

Rebekah Gewirtz, National Association of Social Workers – MA Chapter

 

Rev. Vernon Walker, Young Democrats of Massachusetts

 

Cindy Rowe, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action

 

Cole Harrison, Massachusetts Peace Action

 

Georgia Katsoulomitis, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

 

Isabel Gonzalez-Webster, Worcester Interfaith

 

Jeanne Kempthorne and John Lippitt, Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts

 

Zac Bears, PHENOM

 

Shaun Kennedy, Jetpac

 

Tom Callahan, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance

 

Lisa Danetz, ForwardMA

 

Beth Kontos, American Federation of Teachers – Massachusetts

 

Elena Letona, Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts

 

Fed Wulkan, Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution

 

Vick Mohanka, Clean Water Action

 

Matt Miller, Act on Mass

 

Grace Johnson, MIT Graduate Student Council

 

Seamus Lombardo, MITvote

 

Cara McCormick, Voter Choice for Massachusetts

 

Peter Ciurczak, Cambridge Area Stronger Together (CAST)

 

Deb Paul, Indivisible MA

 

Michael Kane, Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants

 

Janine Carriero and Lew Finfer, Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN)

 

Joyce Hackett, Lift+Every+Vote

 

Louis A. Elisa, Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association

 

Gillian Mason, Massachusetts Jobs with Justice

 

Michael Chen, Boston Sunrise Movement

 

Arielle Jennings, Generation Citizen Massachusetts

 

Evan George, Boston Democratic Socialists of America

 

Elizabeth Henry, Environmental League of Massachusetts

 

Laura Wagner, Unitarian Universalist Mass Action

 

Mark Haidar, The Equal Democracy Project

Photo credit: Dwight Burdette, CC-BY-3.0

Janet Domenitz
Executive Director

Author: Janet Domenitz

Executive Director

(617) 747-4320

Started on staff: 1980
B.A., magna cum laude, Brandeis University.

Janet has been the executive director of MASSPIRG since 1990 and directs programs on consumer protection, zero waste and recycling, health and safety, public transportation, and voter participation. Janet has co-founded or led coalitions, including Earth Day Greater Boston, Campaign to Update the Bottle Bill and the Election Modernization Coalition. Janet serves as vice president for the Consumer Federation of America; and serves on the Common Cause Massachusetts executive committee, Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow board of directors, and Department of Environmental Protection Solid Waste Advisory Committee. For her work, Janet has received Common Cause’s John Gardner Award and Salem State University’s Friend of the Earth Award. Janet lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband and two sons and every Wednesday morning she slow-runs the steps at Harvard Stadium with the November Project.

Started on staff: 1980
B.A., magna cum laude, Brandeis University.