BOSTON (SHNS) – House leaders will release their version of a voting reform bill that passed the Senate last year on Wednesday, and while the bill is expected to include the permanent addition of voting-by-mail other key details remain a work in progress, according to advocates.
Speaker Ron Mariano informed House legislators on Friday to be prepared to debate a voting law reform package this Thursday, and the House Ways and Means Committee said Monday that it anticipates releasing that bill for review the day before it heads to the floor.
While Mariano has said he supports mail-in voting and permanently expanding options for early voting, the prospects in the House are less certain for allowing voters to register and vote on the same day, an idea that could create challenges for incumbents facing challengers in low-turnout primaries.
Election reform advocates said Monday they believed discussions among House leaders over whether to include same-day voter registration in the Ways and Means bill were still ongoing, and that many members who support the reform are reaching out to leadership to make their position known.
During the worst of the pandemic, the Legislature authorized new voting protocols to make voting remotely and with limited personal contact easier. Those reforms, including voting-by-mail and expanded windows for early in-person voting, proved popular with voters, helping to set a record for ballots cast in 2020.
The Senate last October passed a bill known as the VOTES Act (S 2554) that would make some of those pandemic-era reforms permanent, and also added changes to the voting process that would allow unregistered voters to show up either on election day or during the early voting period and register and vote at the same time.
At least 20 states and the District of Columbia already use same-day registration, including Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
“We’re really hopeful that the full bill that was passed by the Senate can be brought to the floor on Thursday. We think now is the time to go big for democracy and we know that vote-by-mail and early voting are very popular, but same day registration is the most popular and we are hoping it’s included,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
A November 2021 poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that 65 percent of residents support same-day registration, compared to 28 percent who are opposed. It’s popularity was on par with that of voting-by-mail, for which the poll showed 64 percent support.
The House has gone on record in support of expanding early voting and permanently authorizing no-excuse voting by mail, but the House rejected a same-day voter registration amendment last year as part of a broader COVID-19 relief bill.
Before the 16-139 vote, Rep. John Lawn, who is now a co-sponsor of the VOTES Act, argued that the timing was not right to consider same-day registration when the Legislature was hoping to reduce lines at the polls and administrative burdens on shorthanded clerks’ offices.
More than 80 House members have previously signed on to legislation that included same-day registration, and advocates on Monday were working to marshal that support to put pressure on House leaders to include the reform in their redraft of the Senate bill.
“The House has voted against (same-day registration) in the past. On Thursday, we cannot let that happen,” wrote MassVOTE Executive Director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford in an email to support on Monday morning. “They must pass the policy that would reduce barriers to the polls for Black and brown, low income, and immigrant individuals. They must pass the policy that would empower hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts voters.”
By removing the deadline that requires voters to be registered at least 20 days before an election, MassVOTES said Massachusetts could boost voter turnout by as much as 17 percent among Black and Latino residents and as much as 10 percent for young voters. It would also help low-income individuals who are often in unstable housing situations that lead to out-of-date voter registrations, the group said.
The bill that passed the Senate also included requirements for sheriffs and the Department of Correction to do more to make sure certain incarcerated individuals who are eligible to vote have that opportunity.
Once the bill is released by Ways and Means, House lawmakers will have the opportunity to propose amendments to address anything that was excluded or that they would like to see changed in the leadership proposal.