BOSTON -- The state Senate is poised on Tuesday to approve a plan to expand voting by mail options ahead of the fall elections, when lingering fears about the coronavirus could keep voters away from the polls.

The proposal, if approved, would allow the state's 4.5 million registered voters to vote early and request absentee ballots for the Sept. 1 state primary and Nov. 3 presidential election. The ballots will be mailed to voters' homes and would have to be turned into to local election clerks prior to the election.

Senators have filed 41 amendments to the bill, which will be taken up during a remote session on Tuesday. The House passed a similar version last week.

"We want people to feel safe and conformable going to the polls," said state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who supports the changes. "This will give them options."

Lovely has filed an amendment requiring the state to provide masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment for poll workers at local election offices.

"A lot of our poll workers are seniors, who are the most at risk population," she said. "We need to make sure they're safe."

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, has filed several amendments to the proposal, including setting a Dec. 31 expiration date for changes to the voting system and a requirement that the state reimburse cities and towns for the added costs within 30 days of an election.

Ahead of Tuesday's Senate vote, good government groups are pushing for approval of several "crucial" amendments to the proposal, including extending the deadline to request absentee ballots for voting by mail and allowing returned ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted.

"With those changes, this bill will ensure that Bay Staters -- who may otherwise have been prevented from casting a ballot by the coronavirus pandemic -- can exercise their fundamental right to participate in our democracy," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

Under the changes, in-person early voting ahead of the fall elections would be allowed from Aug. 22-28 for the primary and Oct. 17-30 for the general election.

The state has already allowed early voting twice ahead of general elections in 2016 and 2018, but not for a state primary.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who isn't up for reelection this year, hasn't said if he supports the expanded balloting options but has questioned the urgency of rushing through changes to the voting system, with the primary and general elections still months away.

Several states hit hard by the pandemic, including New York and New Jersey, have expanded voting by mail. Dozens of others are weighing similar changes.

In Congress, Democratic lawmakers have been pushing to expand voting by mail in response to the pandemic, but they have run into GOP opposition.

Republican President Donald Trump has lobbied against efforts in Congress to allow voting by mail, claiming the process is "corrupt" and will lead to fraud.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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