BOSTON — State officials are being pressured to allow more voters to cast their ballots by mail amid concern the COVID-19 outbreak will dampen participation in elections.

Voting rights and public interest groups are urging the state to switch as much as possible to voting by mail for the state primary in September and general election in November.

Their concern is that voters at the polls will risk spreading the highly contagious virus, or they will stay home out of fear of getting sick.

"We need to offer people a variety of ways to vote safely, so that everyone's vote is counted," said Mary Ann Ashton, co-president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, which is one of the groups pressing for expanded access.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are considering several plans to allow early voting by mail ahead of the fall elections if a state of emergency remains in effect.

One proposal would allow voters to request a mail-in ballot that could be mailed back or dropped off at city or town halls. Ballots would have to be received by election clerks before polls close on Election Day.

Another proposal would mail ballots to all of the state's registered voters at least 18 days before a primary or general election.

None of the proposals would prohibit voters from casting a ballot in person on Election Day.

It's not clear if bans on gatherings or social distancing directives will still be in place in the fall. Lawmakers say the state needs to plan for that possibility.

Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, said given the public health concerns, the state needs to give voters more options.

"As long as it can be done in a safe and secure way, to prevent fraud, I'd be in support of it," he said.

Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, said he too supports expanding ballot access, especially given the virus concerns, but he also said safeguards must be in place.

"Some of the proposals involve just mailing out ballots to every voter, and a lot of people have concerns about that," said Mirra. "The voter rolls aren't always accurate."

Another issue is unenrolled voters, who account for 56% of the state's nearly 4.6 million registered voters. They are required to choose a Republican or Democratic -- or other major party -- ballot in the state primary.

Massachusetts already allows voting by mail ahead of elections held before June 30. Voters can also request absentee ballots by mail for the fall elections, but they must have an excuse, such as a disability.

Lawmakers updated the law recently to allow voters who have COVID-19 or who are at heightened risk of infection to qualify as disabled.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin, the state's top election official, is working on his own plan to expand voting options, which would also require legislative approval.

GOP opposition

Several states hit hard by the pandemic, including New York and New Jersey, have expanded voting by mail options. Dozens of others are considering similar changes.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu has endorsed the idea, saying the state will hold its election by mail in the fall if health risks are still a concern.

Ashton said there are concerns about shifting entirely to voting by mail. States that do so "have been perfecting the system for some time," he said.

"Going from where we are right now to 100% mail-in vote is going to be a heavy lift and may result in people being disenfranchised if we're not careful," she said.

Federal grants are available to help expand voting-by-mail options, supporters say, which could help cash-strapped cities and towns cover the added costs.

Democrats across the country have been pushing to expand voting by mail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have run into GOP opposition.

Republican President Donald Trump has pushed back against efforts in Congress to allow voting by mail, saying the process is "corrupt" and could lead to fraud.

But Erin O'Neill, a professor and head of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said voting-by-mail fraud is nonexistent.

"The problem with our elections is that most people don't vote," she said. "There's also no evidence that voting by mail favors either Republicans or Democrats."

O'Neill says there will be logistical challenges to expanding voting by mail, but she said it wouldn't require a radical overhaul of the election system.

"There's really no excuse not to do it," she said. "You shouldn't have to feel nervous about your health when you go to cast a ballot."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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