Boston elections officials told a City Council committee today that while voting by mail would be ideal in the age of pandemic, they're not currently set up to handle it - and that without proper planning it could mean having hundreds of volunteers counting ballots in close proximity at City Hall, which would defeat the whole point of trying to keep people away from each other.
At a hearing sponsored by City Councilor Matt O'Malley (Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury), several councilors expressed what they said was disappointment that not only did Secretary of State William Galvin decline to participate in the online session, his staffers refused to show up as well. Councilor Lydia Edwards (North End, East Boston, Charlestown), though, went further, saying she was not disappointed but disgusted that the state office in charge of elections refused to discuss the issue with councilors in the state's largest city.
O'Malley said he watched the April presidential primary in Wisconsin - for which Republican legislators and judges refused requests to postpone - with horror and said Boston and Massachusetts should do what several other states have done and move to a system where the default is that voters be allowed to vote by mail. Currently, Massachusetts residents can only vote by mail if they are in the military or provide a reason for getting an absentee ballot.
City Elections Commissioner Eneida Tavares said she'd love to do vote by mail, but pointed out several obstacles that would need to be overcome in time for the Sept. 1 primary:
The city doesn't currently have the high-speed tabulating machines needed to count large volumes of absentee ballots, which would mean gathering large numbers of volunteers into a room to count by hand, at a time when that's exactly what you don't want to do. The city can't just mail out absentee ballots but would instead have to mail out forms by which voters could request ballots - in particular for September, because the city has 181,000 unregistered voters, who would have to designate which party ballot they'd want for the primary. And making major changes would, of course, cost money.
Councilors, such as O'Malley said they were hopeful some of the changes could be made at the state level, where Galvin and legislators are hashing out changes in state elections law to make voting by mail easier. But even with that, he suggested that, at a minimum, the city should look at extending early voting so that voters could more easily social distance and not wind up in coronalines like in Wisconsin. Tavares, however, said, that early voting is also something that requires action by the legislature.