BOSTON (State House News Service) — House and Senate leaders plan to postpone four special elections scheduled for the end of the month, and will pass legislation on Monday to give cities and towns increased flexibility to delay local elections planned for the spring and allow voting by mail.
Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo both announced Thursday afternoon that they would take up an elections bill on Monday.
The step comes as the calls from candidates and voting access advocates to delay certain deadlines, including signaturing gathering requirements, have mounted in light of government orders for people to keep their distance from one another to slow the spread of coronavirus.
"The ability to hold elections is fundamental to the continued functioning of our democracy. We are also aware that we must protect the health and safety of the public during this unprecedented global pandemic," Spilka said in a statement. "As such, the Senate has determined that moving forward with traditional elections at this time would put our voters, election workers, volunteers and others in our cities and towns at excessive risk."
The sentiment expressed by Spilka stands in sharp contrast to that put forward just days ago by Secretary of State William Galvin, the state's chief elections officer, who said he believes that Massachusetts could still safely conduct in-person voting.
"If it's a true crisis, we're certainly not going to force people to choose between their health and voting, but we don't think we're there right now," Galvin said Tuesday.
Spilka said the legislation would give cities and towns "flexibility" with regard to local elections this spring, including the ability to temporarily postpone elections. She said it would also ensure that voters had expanded absentee and mail-in voting options.
DeLeo, in a separate statement, said the House would also take up the legislation on Monday.
"Due to the COVID19 pandemic and in an effort to protect public health, the House plans to take up legislation on Monday to allow cities and towns to postpone municipal elections," DeLeo said.
Both DeLeo and Spilka are also planning to reschedule special elections scheduled for March 31 to fill two vacant seats in the House and two seats in the Senate.
Spilka said the Senate also plans to make absentee ballots or mail-in options available for voters in those special elections under the state of emergency declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is not a decision we take lightly as we seek to balance the need for representation for our legislative districts with the very real risks to our residents," Spilka said.
It was unclear for how long leaders in either branch planned to delay those elections. A Senate official said talks about when to reschedule were ongoing.
Galvin last week proposed legislation seeking emergency powers to respond to cases of natural disaster or emergency, including the authority to postpone elections, move polling locations or extend ballot access deadlines.
A number of candidates, including members of the state's Congressional delegation and the Republican running for U.S. Senate Kevin O'Connor, whose 86-year-old father has been hospitalized with COVID-19, have been calling on leaders to extended the signature gathering deadlines.
While it's unclear if the legislation the House and Senate will take up Monday will address that issue, Quentin Palfrey, the chair of the Voter Protection Corps, said it should.
"You shouldn't be forcing people to choose between what they need to do to get on the ballot and what they need to do to keep themselves and their volunteers safe," Palfrey said.
Palfrey, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, was pleased to hear the Legislature would be taking up a voting bill next week.
"I think it's great. In particular, the increase of early voting and absentee and mail voting options is definitely the direction we should be heading in during this public health emergency," he said.
His and other groups, including Common Cause Massachusetts, the ACLU and MassVote, also believe now would be a good time to implement election-day voter registration. Advocates say the coronavirus outbreak could make it difficult for some people to keep their voter registrations up to date.
"I'm thrilled the state went to automatic voter registration, but there are still too many people who get disenfranchised because of the registration cut-off and people should be allowed to register and vote on election day," Palfrey said. "It doesn't increase fraud and does increase the ability of a lot of people to participate."
"We should do it now," he said.
By Matt Murphy, State House News Service
WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal reports