SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — Congressman Joe Kennedy III wants every eligible Massachusetts voter to be sent a ballot for this fall’s primary and general elections, saying it could help keep turnout strong without forcing people to gather at polling places amid a dangerous pandemic.
In an April 11 letter to House Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, Kennedy asked legislators to enact “a vote-by-mail program in Massachusetts for the entirety of the election cycle,” arguing that otherwise they “risk grave damage to our electoral process, and grave threats to the health and safety of millions of Massachusetts voters.”
Kennedy has extra reason to worry about the smoothness of this year’s elections: he is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Ed Markey in the Sept. 1 Democratic primary. But the question of how to safely and fairly administer elections at a time when people may still be avoiding extensive social interactions — and when elderly people, who often staff the polls, are at particular risk — is being debated nationwide.
In an interview Wednesday with WPRI 12, Kennedy said he is not proposing to close poll locations altogether. “If you still want to go out and vote at a polling location, go ahead and do it,” he said. “No issue there — go for it.”
But he said sending a ballot to every eligible voter with enough time to return it and have it counted provides “a backstop” so that people don’t feel they have to choose between their health and their civic duty. He noted that absentee ballots already work along the same lines.
“It’s essentially an insurance policy whereby we ensure that people across our commonwealth can still have their voices heard and their vote count, even if circumstances are going to prevent them from going to the polls,” he said.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin has expressed reservations about the idea; a spokesperson for Galvin told State House News Service earlier in the week that one challenge would be determining whether an unenrolled voter should be given a Democratic or Republican ballot for the primary.
However, Kennedy argued that poses no major hurdle, since the state could simply send both ballots to those voters and let them choose.
“If you send both, one, you can make sure there’s only one ballot that comes out completed when it comes back, two, you can make sure somebody that tries to send you two envelopes, only one counts, and if they send both, those things get thrown out,” he said. “I can’t walk into a polling location with a separate ballot and fill out two and submit them. That doesn’t work.”
Another option Kennedy floated — though one he said would present a bigger “hurdle” for individual voters — would be to create a page on the secretary of state’s website where unenrolled voters could request which ballot they want to receive.
Markey’s campaign manager, John Walsh, said the incumbent senator “firmly believes that helping as many people vote as possible in every election, including the September primary, is key to a vibrant and engaged democracy, especially during these unprecedented times.”
Walsh noted that Markey last month co-sponsored the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, which would have all states allow early in-person voting as well as vote-by-mail, and would provide funding for states to cover the costs.
In the above video, Kennedy also discusses whether more funding should be added for the Paycheck Protection Program and how long he expects the coronavirus-related shutdowns to continue.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook