Changes & Challenges to Democracy in the Commonwealth
In March, at Common Cause’s urging the Massachusetts Legislature passed an emergency bill, S 2608, that made several important changes for spring municipal elections in response to the COVID-19 crisis. First, it allowed municipalities to postpone their elections until June 30th. Second, it allowed all eligible voters to request and cast an absentee ballot or an early voting by mail ballot. Third, it reduced the blackout period for voter registration from 20 to 10 days prior to an election. These changes are a win for voters.
However, there is no guarantee that the current crisis will have abated by the September State Primaries and November’s General Elections. That is why Common Cause Massachusetts acted quickly to research best practices and work with policymakers in the Commonwealth to pass legislation that will ensure that those elections take place as scheduled with robust participation and while keeping voters safe. We worked with lawmakers to shape legislation that was signed by Governor Baker on July 6. Much like the spring elections bill, it will expand early voting options, and also mail voting by ensuring all registered voters are sent a mail ballot application. Plus, it includes many more protections for voters and elections administrators alike.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has also created challenges around government ethics and transparency leading Governor Baker to issue an executive order allowing government bodies (other than the legislature) to meet remotely and suspending the open meetings law. It is critical that our government remain open and accountable to the public, to the greatest extent possible in this crisis and Common Cause is committed to monitoring and pushing government bodies to remain transparent while adapting to remote work.
This section was updated on July 8, 2020.
Common Cause Massachusetts’ Response
As the outbreak unfolded, Common Cause Massachusetts organized our coalition and urged the legislator to implement reforms for our spring elections. When the legislature implemented many of our recommendations in emergency bill S.2608, we saw it as a strong first step. But there is more to do.
We hope that the COVID-10 crisis will have subsided by September and November, and that we will be able to go about our lives and our elections as normal. But there is no guarantee that will be the case. Both the integrity of our elections and ability to protect public health – and save lives – during a crisis are too important to leave to chance.
That’s we have spent the past months focused on acting now to ensure that – no matter the circumstances – are fall elections are safe and participatory. We worked with state legislators to implement a package of reforms that includes:
- Expanded mail voting for fall 2020 elections
- Expanded early voting windows
- Safety and physical distancing measures
On April 17, Common Cause Massachusetts sent a letter to the Speaker, Senate President, and members of the General Court signed by 50 organizations, urging swift action to protect Massachusetts’ fall elections.
On May 5th, Representatives Mike Moran and John Lawn filed legislation, drafted by Common Cause Massachusetts and supported by our coalition, to protect our fall elections during a pandemic. We lobbied for the bill and organized a network of over 120 organizations who signed on to testimony in support of it.
On May 15th at the bill’s hearing, we submitted that sign-on testimony on behalf of those organizations and gave our own at the bill’s May 15th hearing.
On June 1st, the Joint Committee on Election Laws sent out a bill that fell short of what we were advocating for, but in the weeks after we were able to lobby for and pass amendments in both the House and the Senate that strengthen it. Those changes are detailed in letters we sent to the House on June 3rd, and Senate on June 11th.
The Senate bill was passed on June 16th, and we then worked with leadership in the legislature to ensure that the final bill was as strong as possible.
On July 6th, the final bill – An Act Relative to Safe Voting Options in Response to COVID-19 – was signed into law by Governor Baker. We held a press conference the following day with our coalition partners and Election Laws Chairs Senator Finegold and Representative Lawn to discuss the legislation and the importance of our ongoing voter education campaign.
In a national emergency – and especially one that has upended everyone’s lives in countless ways – it is critical that trust in government is maintained, and justified. To that end, we have called on our government to provide public access with simple technical solutions, such as Zoom and publicly-accessible recordings of meetings both nationally and in the Commonwealth.
A complete 2020 Census is essential: it decides how many federal dollars our communities will receive for critical resources like schools, roads, and – especially important today – hospitals. Census data is also used to determine how much Congressional representation we get and to conduct redistricting in the state.
There are always challenges to securing a complete count. But the outbreak of the novel COVID-19 pandemic has presented even more hurdles to overcome: getting a complete count has typically relied on in-person events, public posters and signage, and door-knocking. We have focused on working with legislators to ensure that their community outreach through alternative methods – social media, newsletters, and other digital communication – is as strong, creative, and engaging as possible.
- 4/16: Digital Town Hall: COVID & Elections. Full recording here.
- 4/17: Coalition Letter to the Massachusetts Legislature
- 5/5: HD 5057: An Act ensuring safe and participatory 2020 state elections in response to COVID-19
- 5/15: Sign-On Testimony in Support of HD 5075 (H 4737) with 120 Organizations
- 5/20: Press Conference on Vote by Mail (Recording)
- 6/1: Statement on Elections Laws Committee Bill
- 6/4: Statement on House Elections Bill
- 6/12: Sign-on Letter to Senate with 80+ Organizations
- 6/16: Statement on Senate Elections Bill
- 7/6: Bill Summary of An Act Relative to Voting Options in Response to COVID-19
- 7/7: Press Conference on Signed Fall Elections Legislation
- 7/13: Emergency Petition for Relief in the Nature of Mandamus
- 7/13: Press Release on Lawsuit against Secretary of the Commonwealth Galvin