New law streamlines voting process for state’s service members overseas

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/3/2022 1:14:07 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Members of the U.S. armed forces serving overseas, who are voters in Massachusetts, will have an easier way to submit their ballots now that Gov. Charlie Baker has signed a package of statewide election reforms.

When Baker signed the VOTES Act, it included a provision championed by state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, that will allow U.S. service members to vote through a secure online portal.

The bill also established no-excuse mail-in voting for all voters, set aside up to two weeks before each election for early voting and changed the registration deadline from 20 days to 10 days before a preliminary, primary or general election.

Velis’ office, in a statement detailing the change for service members, said the senator voted in the 2018 midterm elections while stationed in Afghanistan as a major in the U.S. Army Reserves. He is Senate chairman of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.

“I’m incredibly grateful that this policy for our service members has officially been signed into law,” Velis said in a written statement. “The right to vote is a fundamental right, but overseas service members are currently burdened by many logistical and operational obstacles that impact that right. Anything that we can do to make that voting process for our service members overseas more efficient, we have an obligation to do. I am proud to say we fulfill that obligation with this law.”

Velis filed the VOTES Act amendment in the Senate that established the new system, while state Rep. Jerry Parisella, D-Beverly, and state Rep. Andy X. Vargas, D-Haverhill, filed the same amendment in the House version of the bill.

Before the new reforms, an overseas service member would request an absentee ballot application from the local clerk and a ballot would be mailed or emailed to them. The service member would print it out, mark their votes and send it back to the clerk so that an election receiver could copy their votes onto another physical ballot.

Velis said service members can run into problems finding a functional printer or keeping in contact with the local clerk throughout the process.

“Many times, they are out on missions that take them away from their installations all together,” Velis said. “I remember the excitement and great pride I felt voting during the 2018 mid-term elections from Afghanistan. At the same, I worried about how many of my fellow service members might be missing out on this opportunity and wondered why this process could not be simpler.”

Velis said the fundamental principle of the new system is to make it easier for people who defend the right to vote to cast their own ballots.

The law gives the secretary of the commonwealth’s office until Jan. 1 to approve and implement the new voting portal. Velis’ office said 15 other states use a similar online process for overseas service members.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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