August 8, 2020

Representative Howitt says House, Senate working to finalize expanded early and absentee voting options to ensure safe elections

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Boston – State Representative Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk) said the House and Senate are working to finalize legislation that will provide for expanded voting options for all 2020 state and municipal elections to help ensure the safety of voters and poll workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A six-member Conference Committee was appointed on June 18 to begin negotiations on reconciling the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, both of which would greatly expand early and absentee voting while giving voters the option of casting ballots in-person or by mail.

“Voting is a fundamental right for every citizen 18 and older,” said Representative Howitt. “Given the continued health risks associated with the novel coronavirus, it is imperative that we give all voters multiple options so they can exercise their right to vote in a way that does not jeopardize their personal safety and well-being.”

One of the major differences between House Bill 4778 and Senate Bill 2764 is the process by which the Secretary of State will mail out applications for registered voters to request a vote-by-mail ballot. Under the House version of the bill, applications would be mailed by July 15 for a September 1 primary election ballot and by September 14 for a November 3 general election ballot. The Senate proposal calls for applications for both the primary and general elections to be mailed by July 15 for individuals who have registered to vote prior to July 1, and requires the Secretary of State to mail a voter information booklet, along with at least two applications for the November 3 general election, by October 5.

Another point of contention between the two branches revolves around the deadline for submitting applications for vote-by-mail ballots. The House sets the deadline at seven days prior to the primary and general elections, while the Senate sets it at just four days before the election, Howitt noted.

The House and Senate are both calling for the Secretary of State to establish an online portal for voters to request an early or absentee ballot, but disagree on how the portal would be set up. House Bill 4778 requires the Secretary of State to work with the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) to develop an online portal, and to report back to the Legislature on the progress that has been made by August 15. Senate Bill 2764 requires the Secretary of State to develop the online portal independently by October 1 for the general election, and to attempt to have an online portal in place even earlier for the September 1 primary, if feasible.

Both bills would allow cities and towns to change a polling location for reasons of public health or public convenience, but the House requires the vote to change the location to take place at least 15 days prior to the election, while the Senate requires the vote to take place at least 20 days prior to the election.

Howitt noted the Senate bill also contains certain provisions that were not included in the House bill, including the implementation of an audit of the general election ballots. In addition, the Senate bill also includes language requiring the Secretary of State to:

•conduct a public awareness campaign of the expanded options available to voters for the primary and general elections;

•report back to the Legislature by July 1, 2021 on the costs associated with implementing the expanded voting options; and

•report back to the Legislature within six months of the enactment of the bill on the steps being taken to make voting more accessible to individuals with disabilities.

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