BOSTON (AP) - A voting rights bill designed to ensure that mail-in ballots and early voting become permanent fixtures in future Massachusetts elections was signed into law Wednesday by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.
The new law, which had passed the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts House and Senate by wide margins, would also increase ballot access for voters with disabilities and service members overseas. It would make sure eligible voters who are incarcerated can request a mail-in ballot and take steps to modernize the state's election administration process.
The law does not include provisions that would let individuals both register and vote on Election Day - a change sought by some activists.
Many of the voting options included in the new law proved popular in Massachusetts during the 2020 election at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when some voters were leery of heading to crowded polling locations.
Preparations are underway to ensure that the changes will be in effect for the Sept. 6 state primary elections, according to Democratic Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, whose office oversees elections.
"Every voter in Massachusetts can expect to receive a pre-addressed, postage pre-paid Vote by Mail application in just a few weeks. Voters who prefer to vote in person will be able to take advantage of expanded in-person early voting or vote at their polling place on Election Day," Galvin said in a written statement.
Voting rights advocates welcomed the new law.
"We are thrilled that Governor Baker signed the VOTES Act into law today," Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said in a written statement. "At a time when many states are making it harder to vote, this new law will modernize our elections and make our democracy more accessible and equitable."
The law will let registered voters vote by mail for any presidential, state or municipal primary or election; set aside two weeks - including two weekends - of early voting in-person for biennial state elections and one week - including one weekend - for presidential or state primaries; and move the voter registration deadline from 20 to 10 days before a preliminary, primary or general election.
The secretary of state is required under the new law to send out mail-in ballot applications, with return postage guaranteed, to registered voters 45 days before any state election while hosting an online portal where voters can request ballots in multiple languages.
The law also provides for electronic voting options for overseas voters including military personnel.
Critics have questioned whether some of the changes are constitutional, but voting rights advocates said the bill is key to ensuring access to the ballot.
More than 3.6 million residents cast ballots in the state's 2020 general election, totaling 76% of all registered voters. Of those, 42% voted by mail in the general election. Another 23% voted during early voting windows.
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