New Report: Massachusetts elections in the shadow of COVID-19

Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University’s Tisch College describes the importance of vote-by-mail, maintaining safe polling sites

A lone figure enters a polling place, as a large sign reading "vote here" sits in the foreground.

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (May 6, 2020)—To bolster participation and keep voters safe in 2020, Massachusetts needs to quickly redesign its voting system, according to a new policy report from the Center for State Policy Analysis (cSPA) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The report, titled “Preparing for elections in the shadow of COVID-19,” details the essential decisions and difficult choices facing the Commonwealth as it responds to the challenge of holding elections during a pandemic.

Key findings:

  • Demand for absentee voting and vote-by-mail will likely be enormous, requiring dramatic upgrades to state and municipal capacity. Centralizing parts of this process could help alleviate the burden on cities and towns and reduce the risk of local bottlenecks.
  • There is no definitive answer to the question of whether Massachusetts should automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters, only a complex balance between expanded opportunity and election security.
  • Keeping the voter registration period open longer—or allowing election day registration—would help offset the disruptions COVID-19 will have on field operations and traditional registration drives.
  • Polling places need to remain open as an option for all voters, including those with unstable housing, individuals with serious disabilities, and black and Hispanic voters, who have historically shown a preference for in-person voting. Allowing early voting for the September primary could also improve access.
  • The cost of necessary changes could be substantial, particularly for cities and towns. However, Massachusetts has access to significant federal funding for voting access, including a large amount of unused money from the 2002 Help America Vote Act.
  • Keeping voters informed of these changes will require a concerted communications campaign.  Young voters, including college students, may benefit from robust partnerships connecting election officials with universities, educators and youth-serving organizations.
  • The COVID-19 crisis makes Massachusetts susceptible to other risks, and contingency planning needs to account for the threats of voter suppression, disinformation and more.

Read the full report here.

“We have four months until the September primary," said Evan Horowitz, executive director of cSPA. “These kinds of system-wide changes take time—whether it’s recruiting poll workers from less vulnerable populations or reorganizing operations to accommodate the projected spike in absentee voting.”

”Now is the time to closely consider and enact changes to the Commonwealth’s election procedures to ensure that all voters, including young people voting for the first time, can safely and securely participate in the 2020 primary and general elections,” said Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life. “While there are many legislative, regulatory and financial considerations, we also must be ready to deploy innovative partnerships—between state and local officials, universities, schools, non-profit organizations, and the media—to ensure that Massachusetts’ voters have access to clear and reliable information about voting.”

In developing this report, cSPA was aided by a number of election experts, including Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tisch College, and Brian Schaffner, Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies at Tufts.

In the coming months, cSPA plans to release:

  • An analysis of the Transportation Climate Initiative, which would establish a regional cap-and-trade system covering emissions from cars and trucks; and,
  • Research on the projected impact of the fall 2020 ballot questions, potentially including right to repair, nursing home reimbursement rates, expanded sales of beer and wine in food stores and ranked-choice voting.

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About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, Massachusetts, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.

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