Pandemic-Proofing Our Elections


As news stories out of states like Illinois, Florida, and Wisconsin showed, we need to be taking proactive steps to make sure that we can have high-turnout elections in September and November while protecting public health. In other words, we need to "pandemic-proof" our elections.

The Massachusetts Legislature took important initial steps for municipal and special legislative elections: expanding early voting, shortening the voter registration blackout period, and making it easier for voters to cast their ballots absentee.

We need to build on that for the fall.

What does that mean?

“Pandemic-proofing” our elections will require several essential steps:

Expanding options to vote by mail for both primary and general: To allow voters to follow social distancing guidelines, we should minimize the number of voters who need to physically show up in person on Election Day to vote. Allowing more voters to request absentee ballots by counting COVID-19-related health risks as an accepted excuse for needing an absentee ballot, as the Legislature did for spring and special elections, is good first step, but we must go further and have the Commonwealth mail every eligible voter a ballot (with postage pre-paid) to reduce paperwork and increase democratic engagement. Moreover, it is essential that such ballots must also be made available in every language for which in-person ballots are available to avoid possible disenfranchisement.

Increasing the number of days of early voting for both primary and general: Early voting premiered in Massachusetts in 2016, and it has been a resounding success. Increasing the number of days of early voting would enable voters and election workers to better follow social distancing guidelines by spreading out the number of in-person voters across greater time.

Eliminating the voter registration deadline: Massachusetts’s 20-day voter registration cutoff is arbitrary and discriminatory, leaving out thousands of voters each election cycle. That impact will be exacerbated this year, as voter registration drives over the summer will be unable to occur and as voters seeking hard-copy voter registration forms will be unable to access them as libraries and civic centers remain closed. Our neighbors in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut have all eliminated voter registration deadlines (in some cases, decades ago), and implementation has been smooth and successful.

Protecting in-person voting: When polling sites are closed, the impact disproportionately falls on disadvantaged communities, compounding existing inequalities. Similarly, voters with unstable addresses, voters with physical disabilities, and non-English-speaking voters may have difficulty with voting by mail. Their rights should not be taken away.

Protecting poll workers: Stories from other states about polling sites without poll workers should be taken as a warning sign of what could happen if we do not take proactive steps to staff the polls and provide the necessary protective equipment for poll workers. Our democracy depends on poll workers; they should not have to put their lives at risk.

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