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Protecting Election 2020 from Covid-19: A Toolkit for Massachusetts Activists

If the Covid-19 pandemic continues into November, we will need to change our election practices to make sure voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We have the solutions to make our elections both safe and accessible to all. And with this toolkit, you will know what reforms your state needs and where to focus your efforts.

Last Updated: August 24, 2020
Published: August 24, 2020

This is part of the Brennan Center’s Toolkits for Activists Across the Nation.

Jump to a section: 
Political Context  |  What’s in Place and What’s Needed  |  Key Dates

Administering an election under pandemic conditions requires undertaking steps to keep voting accessible, safe, and secure. The guide below lays out the problems Covid-19 poses, what preparedness measures Massachusetts has, and what changes are still needed. But first, we offer some political context for your advocacy.

Advocacy Focus: Local Reform

Local officials have a lot of responsibility over elections. They are a great place to focus advocacy efforts. Though state officials can make any of the changes in this toolkit, we highlight some examples of changes that local elections officials can also make with this symbol:🔸

Political Context

Below is a list of the relevant officials and information about the legislative session.

Governor: Charlie Baker (R)  

Secretary of the Commonwealth: William Francis Galvin (D)

Legislature: House (D) Senate (D)

Legislative Session:  The legislature is still in session, as of August 24, 2020, with plans to adjourn soon. The legislature can call a special legislative session.

Local Elections Officials: In Massachusetts, a number of local officials share responsibilities for administering elections. You can look up individual local officials here.

What Massachusetts Has and What’s Needed

Three priorities. There are three key areas where we need to shore up our elections systems for success during a pandemic: registration, mail voting, and in-person voting.


Covid-19 may disrupt the traditional ways Americans register to vote, like get out the vote drives or registering at government agencies. In the crucial weeks before the registration deadline, postal service disruptions may lead many registration forms to arrive at election offices after the deadline.

Preparatory Measures Massachusetts Already Has Taken:

  • Online voter registration

Changes Still Needed:

  • Prepare to extend online and mail voter registration deadlines based on conditions in the state
  • Voter registration on Election Day

Voting by Mail

Because of Covid-19, long lines and crowds at the polls pose health risks not seen in previous elections. Allowing every citizen to vote by mail reduces the number of people at the polls on Election Day and decreases the exposure risk to Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Massachusetts Already Has Taken:

  • All voters can vote by mail without an excuse
  • Online tool for requesting an absentee ballot must be implemented by October 1, 2020
  • No notary or witness requirement for return of mail ballot
  • No ID requirement to vote by mail
  • Provides pre-paid postage for voting by mail
  • Accepts late-arriving ballots postmarked by Election Day
  • Sending absentee-ballot applications to all voters who have not yet applied

Changes Still Needed:

  • Provide post-election notice and cure opportunity for defects on absentee-ballot envelope, including signature mismatch or missing signatures

In-Person Voting

Even with expanded mail voting opportunity, states cannot close polling places. To do so may disenfranchise voters without Internet and mail access, or those who do not wish to cast a ballot by mail. In-person voting must be done in accordance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Massachusetts Already Has Taken:

  • In-person early voting

Changes Still Needed:

  • Ensure sufficient polling places are open and resourced on Election Day🔸
  • Open more in-person early voting locations🔸
  • Take proper public health precautions to ensure safe polling places🔸
  • Hold training sessions for polling-place workers well in advance of Election Day, so that election officials can better anticipate problems with staffing and logistics🔸
  • Increase access to curbside voting at polling locations

Advocacy Focus: Protecting Polling Places

No matter how prepared Massachusetts is as a matter of policy, elections officials and advocates must stay vigilant about ensuring safe, healthy in-person voting is an option for everyone all the way through Election Day. Here are some important things to know about who makes decisions about polling places in Massachusetts and what rules govern the process:

  • If the select board, board of selectmen, or town council determines that the public convenience or public health would be better served, they may house all polling places in a single building within the municipality, if such building is suitably equipped.🔸
  • Any polling place can be changed at least 20 days in advance of an upcoming election if it is determined that the public convenience or public health would be better served.🔸
  • Before changing a polling place, a municipality must evaluate whether the change would have “a disparate adverse impact on access to the polls on the basis of race, national origin, disability, income or age.” The municipality must also make a report of its evaluation publicly available three days before changing a polling place.🔸
  • The Secretary of the Commonwealth shall develop emergency regulations requiring public health safeguards at early voting sites and polling places in consultation with the Department of Public Health Commissioner for the administration of elections in 2020.

Key Dates for Massachusetts Elections

  • August 22, 2020: Voter-registration deadline for the Primary Election
  • August 22-August 28, 2020: In-person early voting for the Primary Election
  • August 26, 2020: Application deadline to vote by mail in the Primary Election (receipt of paper form at local election office)
  • September 1, 2020: Primary Election Day
  • October 17-October 30, 2020: In-person early voting for the General Election
  • October 24, 2020: Voter-registration deadline for the General Election
  • October 28, 2020: Application deadline to vote by mail in the General Election (receipt of paper form at local election office)
  • November 3, 2020: General Election Day