House lawmakers Thursday will debate legislation that would permanently expand early voting opportunities and make absentee voting a default option in future elections, but Democratic leaders left out popular reform from the bill that would allow voters to to register and vote on day.
The latest version of the VOTES Act, compiled by House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, seeks to enshrine some of the changes made to voting rules during the COVID-19 pandemic to minimize health risks. New options for voters, such as absentee voting and extended early in-person voting windows, resulted in a record number of ballots cast in the 2020 election.
The House Invoice (H 4359)but does not require same-day voter registration, which could lead to a possible conflict if that doesn’t change, with the Senate, where Democrats have included same-day registration in the version of the VOTES Act they passed last October .
“We’re going to listen to the debate and see if anyone changes my mind,” House Speaker Ron Mariano said Monday in reference to the same-day registration. The Quincy Democrat noted that he voted against it last year when it was offered as an amendment to a broader COVID-19 relief bill, and failed.
For now, the committee’s bill is putting some House Democrats at odds with proponents who say same-day registration could open up opportunities for younger and more transient voters. Some argue that members of the House may seek to protect themselves from challengers, but the House may also fear the possibility of having to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override a potential veto by Gov. Charlie Baker .
Baker Last year, “the complexity” of electoral reform knocked and the additional work it would require from local election officials.
Proponents who see same-day registration as crucial to a final bill said Wednesday they remain hopeful an amendment could be adopted by the whole House when the committee’s bill comes up for debate.
“We’ve spoken to so many lawmakers over the past few days and same-day registration continues to be so popular, so we look forward to working with many Members of the House on a change,” said Geoff Foster, Executive Director of Common Cause Massachusetts .
Amendments to the bill began to flow in on Wednesday afternoon, and MP Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton filed a registration amendment the same day. MassVOTE also sent an email to its list urging supporters to call their representatives and urge them to support same-day registration.
Foster pointed out that at least 84 members of the House of Representatives co-sponsored the original VOTES Act, tabled by Rep. John Lawn of Watertown, which included same-day registration.
“We hope that same number will support a change,” Foster said.
As things currently stand, voters have to register in their city at least 20 days before an election, which critics say is an obstacle to participation, especially for young people and those who tend to be transient. Same-day registration would allow unregistered but eligible voters to show up at a polling station on election day or during early voting hours, register and vote at the same time.
Proponents say the registry reform could increase voter turnout by up to 10 percent statewide, based on data from other states, and have an even greater impact in low-income, black and Hispanic communities. Secretary of State William Galvin, who is seeking re-election, and Attorney General Maura Healey, who is running for governor, both support the reform, as do many of the other candidates in those two races.
“It’s pretty devastating not to have same-day registration there,” said Rep. Tami Gouveia, an Acton Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor.
“We know there are many ways people feel left out of our electoral process, and this is one way to give voters a voice in the process, especially knowing that Massachusetts is one of the states that has more college students live here for four years and hope to stay here,” Gouveia said.
At least 20 states and the District of Columbia already use some form of same-day registration, including Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Senate Speaker Karen Spilka said in a GBH radio interview on Tuesday that Massachusetts was falling behind.
“It’s a shame. We should have been number one or earlier, but at least we should,” said Spilka, adding: “I think we should do everything we can to help people who want to vote.”
Gouveia said that while the bill has “many elements that we were looking for”, the exclusion of same-day registration would leave renters, students and those with insufficient housing “in the dust”.
“I think part of that is to protect the incumbent. I think some of it is status quo. That’s the way we’ve always done it,” Gouveia said.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted Thursday 18-8-1 to move the bill forward, with seven of the eight Republicans on the panel voting against and Boston Rep. Nika Elugardo casting the lone Democratic vote no. A full breakdown of the vote was not available.
Rep. Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, said he didn’t think the 45 minutes given to committee members to consider and vote on the new bill wasn’t enough time.
While Durant said he’s still reviewing the bill, he plans to introduce an amendment that would prevent cities and towns with vaccine mandates from entering certain buildings from enforcing them if they interfered with a person’s ability to access a polling station obtain. Durant also said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to same-day registration, but had concerns about its implementation and electoral integrity.
“What bothers me is that we don’t have a clear way to ensure voters don’t register and vote in two places on the same day,” Durant said. “We want everyone to vote, but we want them to only vote once and we want to make sure they have the right to vote.”
Act on Mass. communications director Ella McDonald said House lawmakers have a vested interest in opposing anything that would increase popular voter turnout that could challenge their hold on their seats.
“I think it’s important to look critically at the fact that in a state that has a lot of protections for incumbents and one of the lowest rates in the country of key challengers winning elections, it’s really telling that we’re not in able to achieve the same -day voter registration,” McDonald said.
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 oppose it. The same poll found 64 percent in favor of mail-in voting.
The bill would establish detailed procedures for absentee voting, including the dissemination and return of ballot applications and actual ballots. It would also extend early voting in person to every biennial state election and primary, presidential primary, and special election.
Early voting in the biennial state elections, taking place this November, would begin the third Saturday before the election and last through the Friday before Election Day, while the window would narrow to the second Saturday before the presidential, state primary and special elections.
Cities and towns would be directed to allow early voting during normal business hours and all weekends during the early voting period, although the number of weekend hours required would vary based on the size of the municipality.
Finally, the bill seeks to ensure that eligible imprisoned voters are given the information and access they need to register to vote and participate in elections.