BOSTON, (SHNS) – With the Legislature expected this week to extend voting-by-mail through mid-December, a more comprehensive election reform bill filed by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem advanced out of committee Monday and Democratic leaders are eyeing action in the Senate as soon as the fall.
Creem, a Newton Democrat, filed legislation (S 459) this session that would not only make mail-in voting a permanent option for all voters in Massachusetts before every election, but also legalize same-day voter registration, expand early in-person voting, and improve access to voting for eligible incarcerated residents.
The bill, known as the VOTES Act, has been co-sponsored by more than half of the House and the Senate.
“We want to build upon what we consider to be the most successful election in Massachusetts history because we had the highest turnout. In a democracy, the goal is to get as many people as possible to participate, regardless of who they support,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Elections Laws.
Finegold and Rep. Dan Ryan, the House co-chair of the committee, opened a poll of committee members Friday night, giving them until Monday afternoon to weigh in on the bill. The bill advanced on a 14-3 favorable vote, with only the committee’s three Republicans — Rep. Shawn Dooley, Rep. Marc Lombardo and Sen. Ryan Fattman — voting in opposition.
Dooley, a former town clerk in Norfolk, said he was concerned the bill would make the administration of elections too cumbersome for local officials.
“To add in same day registration and not require a photo ID at the same time that the state has not joined the national voter registry will create a huge burden on the clerk and election officials, cause a number of slowdowns and headaches, and increase the possibility for fraud — either intentional or unintentional,” Dooley said.
Many voting reform advocates, however, cheered the progress of the legislation.
“We are hearing a lot of support in the House and Senate for voting rights and so we are very excited about this movement,” said Geoff Foster executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “We think it shows a prioritization for this issue this session and we’re excited to work with House and Senate leaders on something that is robust and makes our democracy more accessible.”
Both Finegold and Creem told the News Service they were hopeful a version of the bill would emerge for a vote in the Senate before the end of the year.
“I’m thrilled,” Creem said. “It’s great timing, particularly when we see across the country voter suppression and states that are making it harder for voters.”
The House and Senate last Friday struck a deal to extend the authorization for voting-by-mail until Dec. 15 to cover municipal elections happening later this summer and fall, including mayoral races in cities like Boston. The compromise came after the House had voted to make mail-in voting permanent, but did not take up any of the other reforms, such as same-day registration.
The House on Monday passed the compromise budget bill that extended mail-in voting until December, and the Senate could take it up as soon as Wednesday. While legislative leaders would not say whether the release of the VOTES Act from committee was part of that compromise, Creem said it’s an important step forward.
“It’s certainly a statement to say we’re not just doing this temporarily but our intentions are to actually really debate this,” Creem said.
Finegold called it “the beginning of a process” and said the final bill could still change, but as chairman of the committee he said, “We wanted to at least get one bill moving so we can continue to work on it.”
“I would be hopeful that we get something done this fall,” Finegold said.
The bill, a version of which was also filed in the House by Rep. John Lawn, would enshrine some of the voting reforms adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, including no-excuse voting by mail and expanded in-person early voting.
The Creem bill also stretches the window to register to vote, pushing the last day to do so from 20 days before an election to 10 days before, and allows for same-day registration when a voters shows up in person to cast a ballot either early or on election day.
Other reforms in the bill include improved ballot access for incarcerated eligible voters, adjustments to the automatic voter registration system, and more frequent post-election auditing.
Secretary of State William Galvin said he was encouraged to see the bill advance out of committee. Galvin worked with Finegold to file separate legislation this session that would have accomplished goals similar to those in the VOTES Act, including permanent mail-in voting and same-day registration.
“I am happy to see progress is being made toward a permanent mail-in voting option for Massachusetts voters. Now that we have an agreement to give voters the choice to vote by mail in their city elections this fall, I hope that the Legislature will be able to pass an election reform bill that puts permanent rules in place for 2022 and all future elections,” Galvin said.
In 2020, with accommodations like voting-by-mail in place, close to 3.66 million residents voted in Massachusetts. That set a record for ballots cast, with 76 percent of registered voters participating in a presidential election year.
Close to half of all voters cast ballots by mail during the primary, and 42 percent used mail-in ballots in November. Another 23 percent of voters cast their ballot early, but in-person to avoid lines on Election Day.
“Across the country, more than 400 anti-voter bills have been introduced in state legislatures. In the face of these nationwide attacks on voting rights, Massachusetts must do all it can to defend democracy,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Rose encouraged legislators to “pay particular attention to equity for low-income voters and voters of color.”
“Establishing same day registration and improving ballot access for incarcerated voters will help ensure all eligible voters can vote in practice,” she said.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-day registration, while two of those states — Montana and North Carolina — allow a voter to register and cast a ballot on the same day during an early voting window, but not on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“This would be ground breaking if we did same-day registration,” Creem said. “It seems this is the year it will happen. I hope.”