Senate leaders push mail-in voting, same-day registration
Spilka hits 'un-American darkness’ spreading across US
THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE will vote next week on an expansive election reform package that includes same-day voter registration, permanent voting by mail, expanded early voting, and provisions to make it easier for incarcerated people to vote to cast their ballots.
The package, backed by the Democratic state Senate leaders, includes many reforms that liberal-leaning voting rights activists have been pushing for. It sets the stage for negotiations this year between the Senate, House, and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker on what updates are needed to state voting laws.
The proposal – released as lawmakers gear up for an election year – provides a sharp contrast to more restrictive voting measures being pushed by Republican leaders nationally and a ballot measure backed by the Massachusetts Republican Party that would require residents to show photo identification to vote.
“An anti-democratic, fundamentally un-American darkness is spreading across the United States, as some states act to actually restrict legally eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” said Senate President Karen Spilka, comparing voter suppression efforts to the racist Jim Crow laws. “If our nation is to make it through this difficult moment, we must…show the power of not only protecting but expanding voters’ access to the ballot box.”
The bill would allow early voting by mail for any reason, a policy that was instituted temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would allow same-day voter registration and it would expand early voting, which has been available for presidential and state elections, to primaries.
It would require correctional facilities to provide information to incarcerated people about their right to vote and help them obtain absentee ballots. It would not expand voting rights to people convicted of felonies, but would make voting easier for people incarcerated pre-trial or for misdemeanor offenses. According to Creem, there are 7,000 to 9,000 incarcerated people in Massachusetts who are eligible to vote.
People with disabilities would be accommodated through access to an electronic ballot if they vote early – an issue that arose in a lawsuit last year over how mail-in voting could be used by people who could not read a paper ballot.
The bill does not include other online voting provisions. Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat who chairs the Election Laws Committee, said the committee is looking at eventually allowing online voting for military members, but the technology is “not there yet.”
The bill would require Massachusetts to join ERIC by July 1, 2022, which is an electronic information system through which voter rolls are compared across state lines and with public documents to flag when a voter moves or dies. A 2018 law already requires Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin to join the system, but the state has not done so.
According to Galvin’s office, joining requires a statewide mailing, which the secretary is trying to send between city election season and town election season, to avoid confusion. A paper shortage is requiring the office to order mailing materials farther in advance. “We hope to be able to move forward on joining ERIC soon,” said Galvin spokesperson Debra O’Malley.
According to Senate Ways and Means chair Michael Rodrigues, the bill would cost between $2 million and $3 million a year – the cost of prepaid postage for ballot applications and ballots.
Finegold called it “a groundbreaking election reform bill that empowers voters and strengthens our democracy.” Finegold said record turnout for the 2020 elections shows that early voting and vote-by-mail works. In the 2020 general election, 42 percent of voters voted by mail and 23 percent voted early in person.
One provision that will likely be the subject of debate is same-day voter registration. Massachusetts already adopted automatic voter registration, which means any eligible citizen who performs certain transactions at the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth is automatically registered to vote. Gov. Charlie Baker has opposed same-day voter registration, citing the “complexity” of it.
Beth Huang, director of Massachusetts Voter Table, which aims to increase voting among working class people and communities of color, said same-day registration is particularly important for people who move and forget to re-register before an election. Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, said 21 states have same-day registration. “It’s not complicated, it takes down barriers to voting,” Domenitz said.
Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican who sits on election laws committee, said he is unhappy that lawmakers were presented with the bill at 10 a.m. and expected to poll it out of the Ways and Means Committee an hour later. “We need to take our time to do our job thoroughly and correctly, and perhaps things should slow down a bit,” Fattman wrote in an email.
Fattman worries about the cost universal mail-in voting places on small municipalities. “They usually administer elections with volunteers, and I am not sure at this point that we have the safeguards in place to ensure people have confidence that their vote will count, or potentially be disqualified due to application errors while completing a mail-in ballot,” he said.
Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the conservative-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, panned the bill’s release as partisan “posturing for Democratic primary elections.”
Among Democrats, Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, has said he will offer amendments to provide additional assistance to incarcerated individuals. A coalition of criminal justice groups has been pushing for a bill that would require correction officials to give absentee ballot applications and voter registration forms to all eligible voters in their facilities and provide dropboxes and opportunities for private voting.If the bill passes the Senate, it will move to the House. Whitney Ferguson, a spokesperson for House Speaker Ron Mariano, said the House is already on record supporting permanent mail-in voting, having passed it earlier this year. “We look forward to reviewing the full details of the Senate’s proposal upon passage,” Ferguson said.
O’Malley said Galvin generally supports the bill, though he has raised some administrative concerns. He hopes the bill is passed this year to give his office time to prepare for the 2022 elections.