All of Massachusetts’ registered voters would be allowed to cast a ballot by mail and residents could register to vote on Election Day itself under a sweeping elections bill released Thursday by state Senate leaders.
The legislation, which could pass the Senate as early as Wednesday, seeks to make permanent measures that millions of voters embraced during last year’s first COVID-19-racked elections, including expanded voting by mail and voting early ahead of a primary.
But it also includes a series of more far-reaching changes that would further reshape Massachusetts’ voting landscape, most notably allowing same-day voter registration, a long-debated issue that could face resistance from within the Massachusetts House and from Governor Charlie Baker.
In unveiling the bill, Senate leaders framed it as an antidote to efforts by other state legislatures to make it more difficult to get to the ballot box — efforts fueled by the distrust sowed by former president Donald Trump and others following last year’s election. At least 18 states have enacted 30 laws that restrict access to voting since January, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
“An antidemocratic, fundamentally un-American darkness is spreading across the United States,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka said Thursday outside the State House. “We must show the power of not only protecting but expanding voters’ access to the ballot box.”
The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, earlier this year extended its pandemic-era expanded mail-in voting rules through mid-December, reaching an agreement after the House had initially pushed to make it permanent as part of an unrelated spending bill.
The Senate now is seeking a similar permanent measure: Under the language, the secretary of state would be required to mail registered voters an application for a mail-in ballot by July 15 in even-numbered years. The state would also be required to create an electronic system for state elections to allow qualified voters to request an early ballot online, and the bill would ensure that those who vote early but then die before Election Day still have their votes counted, keeping a change passed for 2020.
In addition, the legislation would codify early voting periods, weekends included, for both general and primary elections. Voters would have two weeks of early in-person voting for biennial state elections, as well as any municipal elections held on the same day, and one week for a presidential, state primary, and concurrent municipal elections.
“These are no longer just novel ideas but have been tried and tested,” said state Senator Cynthia S. Creem, a Newton Democrat who helped write the language.
The bill also goes further. Massachusetts would join 20 other states and Washington, D.C., in allowing same-day registration on Election Day or during early voting periods. Under the Senate legislation, those registering would be required to show a proof of residence, which could include a photo ID or a range of other documents, such as a bank statement, cell phone statement, a lease agreement or paycheck, among other things.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin backs the concept, as do voting rights advocates who say it’s a way to lower barriers to voting, particularly for low-income residents and people of color.
But Baker and House Democrats have been cool to the idea. The Republican governor said in a radio interview in recent weeks that he opposes adding same-day registration because of the “complexity” it would inject into Election Day. “I want municipalities and the Commonwealth on Election Day to focus on one thing and one thing only, which is counting the votes,” he said on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”
The House, too, roundly rejected an amendment, 139-16, to establish same-day registration during its debate over voting changes last year.
Should the Senate pass the omnibus bill Wednesday, it would then head to the House.
“There are people who are apprehensive about [same-day registration]. I go back and forth on it,” said state Representative Daniel J. Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat and House chairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws. “There’s a part of me that says you spend an entire election year, wooing [registered] voters, knocking on doors. And then people all of a sudden show up on Election Day that you haven’t had a chance to talk to.”
The Senate bill also seeks to make it easier for some incarcerated people to vote. It would require jails and prisons to give all those eligible to vote — such as those being held on pre-trial detention but have not been convicted — information about voting procedures, help them register if necessary, and “ensure the receipt . . . and return” of ballots.
Under the Massachusetts Constitution, convicted felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated and would still not be eligible while in jail or prison.
The bill also would require elections officials to provide an accommodation, including submitting a ballot electronically, to a voter who requests it because of a disability. Galvin, who reached a settlement with disability advocates last October to make it easier for some voters to request an electronic ballot, said his office is reviewing how other states have approached similar issues.
“We can’t take risks with the security of the system,” the Brighton Democrat said. “I’ve been a consistent proponent of hard-copy ballots. We don’t have electronic equipment here in Massachusetts. We do want to help voters. The policies we agree with. But there are administrative issues.”