BOSTON — Cities and towns will be allowed to offer voting by mail for local elections through the end of the year under a plan approved by lawmakers.
A $261 million supplemental state budget presented for approval includes a provision that renews pandemic-related rules permitting voting-by-mail until Dec. 15 to cover municipal elections this fall. The House passed the bill Monday.
The House and Senate approved separate vote-by-mail plans weeks ago, and lawmakers were unable to agree on a final version before the temporary rules expired June 30.
That forced communities with July elections to revert to pre-pandemic rules, which require an excuse to vote “absentee.”
Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees the state's elections, also supports expanded early and mail-in voting. He has submitted his own proposal.
Galvin said he is encouraged by lawmakers’ decision to extend the emergency voting regulations.
Massachusetts was one of dozens of states that temporarily changed its laws to expand mail-in voting options and avoid crowding at the polls as the pandemic raged.
Cities and towns also provided 14 days of early voting, allowing people to cast ballots in person.
Until last year, Massachusetts only allowed mail-in ballots from voters who could provide an excuse, such as a disability, for voting absentee.
But the state's voters have enthusiastically embraced mail-in and early voting.
In last year’s state primary, about 814,000 ballots were cast by mail — more than 47% of all votes — fueling the largest primary turnout in state history.
The number of mail ballots jumped to more than 2.3 million for the Nov. 3 general election, with some communities reporting 3 of 5 ballots cast by mail.
But the law that expanded voting access expired at the end of the year. Voting rights groups have been prodding state leaders to make the changes permanent.
The state's Republican Party has criticized the push to continue mail-in voting, as have some conservative groups, citing the potential for fraud.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are also advancing a proposal that would make mail-in voting a permanent option, authorize same-day voter registration, expand early in-person voting, and improve access to voting for eligible prisoners.
The measure, which cleared the Legislature's Joint Committee on Elections Laws on Monday, is expected to come up for a vote in the House and Senate this fall.
The committee's co-chairman, Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, is among those who support the changes, which he said would "empower voters and strengthen our democracy."
"Democracy works best when we bring everyone to the table," he said. "Right now, states across the country are making it harder for people to cast ballots. Amidst this ongoing campaign of voter suppression, Massachusetts has the opportunity to send a clear message that we must and will protect voting rights."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.