BOSTON (State House News Service) – Opponents of a new Massachusetts law that will open up driver’s license access to immigrants without legal status stepped closer to placing a referendum on the ballot, declaring confidence Wednesday that the repeal question has energized voters and could buoy Republicans “up and down the ticket.”
Leaders of the repeal campaign, backed by a range of conservative power players, said they collected more than 100,000 signatures by Wednesday’s deadline to file with local elections officials. Clerks have already certified about 78,000 of those signatures, organizers said, nearly twice as many as the 40,120 required for a referendum to advance.
The measure has not yet secured a spot on the Nov. 8 ballot, but the volume of signatures certified represents a major step toward asking voters whether a law Democrats enacted over Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s objection should take effect next summer.
MassGOP Chair Jim Lyons and Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl, who joined campaign organizers at an event Wednesday, called the results so far “democracy in action.”
“It’s the wrong way to go. As Governor Baker said, the RMV is not prepared to handle this,” Diehl said, referencing concerns Baker raised when he vetoed the bill about the Registry of Motor Vehicles’s ability to process foreign documents. “They are not the right avenue for processing this type of documentation that can be used around the rest of the country and potentially provide safety issues.”
The signatures were due with local elections officials by Wednesday for certification, and the campaign must then submit them to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office by Sept. 7 for a final review and count.
Galvin spokesperson Deb O’Malley said the office does not count signatures until after the deadline but that so far the campaign has submitted “about 36 inches of petitions.”
Maureen Maloney, the referendum campaign’s chair, said organizers observed significant interest in the topic at its signature-gathering events, “where voters lined up to sign our petitions, where voters took blank petitions home to have their friends and family sign, and voters voiced to us their reasons for opposing the law.”
“There was and is tremendous support from Massachusetts voters to repeal the driver’s license law,” Maloney said.
Lyons said he believes the measure’s inclusion on the ballot could drive more engagement particularly among conservative Republicans “who might not have come out in the past.”
“We believe that it’s certainly going to help all of our candidates up and down the ticket, not only by getting people out to vote, but the fact that these people are so energized — the number of people who went out to actually collect signatures is something that I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been doing this a long time,” he told reporters.
Under the new law effective July 1, 2023, all Massachuestts residents who are old enough will be eligible to apply for standard driver’s licenses, regardless of their immigration status. Immigrants who do not have legal status in the United States will need to submit other documents — including either a valid, unexpired foreign passport or a valid, unexpired consular identification document — to prove their identity, date of birth and current residency.
Opponents argue the measure would unfairly reward undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts and could create risks for voter fraud.
Maloney, whose son Matthew Denice was killed by a drunk driver who did not have legal status in the U.S., said the Bay State’s roads “will be much more unsafe” if the law takes effect.
Backers of the policy make the opposite argument, saying it will increase road safety by ensuring that more motorists have access to standard driver’s education and exams before they get licensed to drive.
Brazilian Worker Center Executive Director Lenita Reason and 32BJ SEIU Executive Vice President Roxana Rivera, co-founders of a coalition of dozens of groups that supported the legislation, said the bill’s “overwhelming passage proves that Massachusetts has changed and we can all work together.”
“It passed so that all parties in an accident can have insurance, so that police can easily know a driver’s identity, so that immigrants can take their children to doctor’s appointments without fear,” Reason and Rivera said in a joint statement Wednesday. “Look at who is behind this attempt to roll back the driver’s license law and you will see the same people who want to roll back laws protecting abortion access, voting rights, and many other laws that improve safety and equality. We will not let that happen here in Massachusetts.”
A Suffolk University and Boston Globe poll of 569 registered voters conducted in mid-July found 58 percent support keeping the new law in place and 34 percent want to repeal it, with 8 percent unsure.
The referendum campaign said it relied on a force of about 1,000 volunteers to collect the overwhelming majority of signatures. Wendy Wakeman, the campaign committee’s administrator, told the News Service that the group got “under 200 signatures from paid signature-gathering.”
“We did try to hire other people, but it just never came through, and frankly the response was so heated that we realized we didn’t have to go that route,” she said.
Wakeman said the campaign has spent about $50,000 so far on printing petitions and signs, feeding volunteers and other expenses.
“We knew how important this issue was, and it was really clear that my campaign wanted to get involved, the volunteers I have on my team, so we got involved right away, dropped everything we were doing and got out there and started collecting right away,” Diehl said.
No more than 10,030 signatures from a single county — representing 25 percent of the total requirement — will count toward making the ballot. Wakeman said the campaign is “likely to have” four counties above that threshold: Norfolk, Middlesex, Essex and Plymouth.
But she said she does not anticipate that limit will affect the referendum’s path toward the ballot given the volume of signatures and the geographic breadth in play.
“It became this sort of clarion call. It never bothered me. The bottom line is we collected enough signatures all the way around so that it doesn’t matter,” she said in an interview. “At this point, the clerks’ certification process has us at just under 80,000 signatures. It’s not going to be possible for us to have a 25 percent problem.”
Lyons, a former state representative, claimed during Wednesday’s press conference that supporters of the law “intimidated, coerced and interfered” with volunteers who were attempting to gather signatures and that the “media is silent” about the issue.
MassGOP announced lawsuits in late July alleging that Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat and gubernatorial candidate, failed to intervene. Lyons said Wednesday the cases would “play out in the court system over the next probably 18 to 24 months.”