It’s no coincidence that as the nation’s eyes are once again focused on Donald Trump’s impeachment — and the insurrection that led up to it — closer to home, making elections safe, secure, and beyond reproach has become the order of the day. Trust in the electoral process is at the heart of this democracy.
The vast expansion of both mail-in voting and early voting in Massachusetts last year was one of the few fringe benefits of this dreadful pandemic. But those essential reforms came with an expiration date that is now fast approaching — March 31 — which means legislators need to agree on a permanent package of voting-rights fixes.
“Last year we had record turnouts. We need to keep this up,” said Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who last week introduced legislation to build on that 2020 experience at a time when, nationally, mail-in voting is under attack.
“Part of my job is to defend the [electoral] system against attacks . . . to protect the integrity of the process,” Galvin added.
Galvin’s bill would make “no-excuse” mail-in voting a fixture of all future elections — state and local, primaries, preliminaries, and general elections. It would also mandate in-person early voting for state primaries (requiring one weekend plus five business days) and general elections (which must include two weekends and 10 business days). Early voting in city and town elections would be a local option.
But the big expansion in voting rights would be same-day voter registration, an advance Galvin says is now made easier by technology — a system that can reregister a voter in a new city or a new precinct and delete that voter’s previous registration at the same time, thus preventing dual voting.
By adopting same-day registration, Massachusetts would be joining 21 other states, plus the District of Columbia, that used the system as of 2020, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those same-day registration states include Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut.
A number of studies have found same-day registration increased voter turnout; the most recent of those studies (2016) put the increase at 7 percentage points.
The proposed safeguards are many — production of a photo ID, proof of residence, penalties for fraudulent voting — and the risks few.
The bill also sticks with the mail-in ballot application process, which worked well in 2020, rather than alternative proposals that simply send out ballots to registered voters at their last known address. The application system, Galvin said, “protects the expansion of mail-in voting” and at the same time “protects against accusations of fraud.”
Another reform that proved so successful last fall, allowing the preprocessing of early and mail-in ballots by city and town clerks (which includes everything but the actual candidate tallies), would be made permanent.
The secretary’s bill won’t be the only entry in expanding and making permanent these voting reforms. The Election Modernization Coalition, which includes the ACLU of Massachusetts and Common Cause, along with Senator Cynthia Creem and Representative John Lawn, introduced their legislation this week as well, which includes a provision for same-day voter registration.
Senator Barry Finegold, who chaired the Election Laws Committee during the last session, has also committed to making those temporary electoral improvements permanent and has held virtual meetings in his district to advance those ideas.
There is no shortage of good ideas, and certainly no shortage of good intentions. There will, of course, be the usual disputes around the margins. But with more than 1.5 million voters taking advantage of mail-in ballots in the November election and another 844,000 voting early — of the record 3.6 million votes cast — a return to the old ways of doing things is unthinkable.
But the usual glacial pace on Beacon Hill, further slowed by the pandemic and the arrival of a new House speaker, means lawmakers haven’t even been assigned to legislative committees yet. It’s likely the Legislature could buy itself some time by extending that March 31 expiration date by a few months.
What is clear is that election reform is too important to wait indefinitely, to be put in a queue with bills to name a highway overpass. Anyone who doubts that should watch reruns of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists insisting that a legitimate presidential election was “stolen.”
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