The Massachusetts House is poised to vote Thursday on a bill making no-excuse voting by mail standard, advancing a measure that advocates and top elections officials have been pushing the Democratic-controlled chamber to embrace for months.
But the bill does not call for same-day voter registration, a proposal that already passed the state Senate and would represent a much bigger change. Voting rights advocates decried its omission, saying that Massachusetts is already a laggard in efforts to protect and expand voting access. But a top House lawmaker said the chamber hadn’t yet reached consensus on same-day registration, to which some Democrats, Governor Charlie Baker, and Senate Republicans have been resistant.
The House bill, like legislation that passed the Senate last year, would allow all voters to cast a ballot by mail, making permanent a provision that legislators passed on a temporary basis in 2020 to accommodate the pandemic and extended twice before letting it expire in mid-December.
Under the current law, voters are expected again to cast their ballots in person — an unwelcome prospect for some as the Omicron variant continues to rage — unless they qualify for an absentee ballot. To be eligible for an absentee ballot, a voter must be away from their home on Election Day; have a disability that prevents them from voting at their polling place; or have a religious belief that prevents them from voting at their polling place on Election Day, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
Lawmakers hope to restore mail-in alternatives for voters looking ahead to municipal elections in the spring, amid the continued uncertainty of a pandemic. House leaders circulated language on Wednesday and are expected to move quickly to a vote on Thursday.
Representative Aaron Michlewitz, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, said mail-in ballots have already worked in Massachusetts and seemed to substantially increase turnout.
“They’ve been successful,” he said. “The quicker we can get this done, the better, to make it permanent in Massachusetts going forward.”
At least 26 states and Washington, D.C., already offer “no-excuse” absentee voting, allowing any voter to request and cast a mail-in ballot, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states conduct elections entirely by mail, meaning voters automatically receive a mail-in ballot; that also includes Vermont, which does so for general elections only.
The House bill establishes time frames for early voting in person, before Election Day, and by mail, in various types of elections. It allows for ballots to be opened in advance of the election, under regulations set by the secretary of state, and kept secured and unexamined until the polls close. And it calls for providing applications to those who are incarcerated but eligible to vote.
Michlewitz also suggested it would be “premature” to rule out same-day registration and that debate will continue.
“As a body, we cannot come to a consensus on how to proceed on same-day [voter registration],” Michlewitz said. “We’re still working through that discussion through the amendment process.”
At least 20 other states and the District of Columbia already offer same-day registration. 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.
“Why would we not stand up and use this opportunity as a springboard to show others around the rest of the country that this is how you do it?” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE. “I thought that’s what Massachusetts thought they were — on the cutting edge. Clearly we’re not, if we can’t get same-day registration passed.”
During an earlier debate in 2020, the House overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to establish same-day registration. House Speaker Ronald Mariano said this week he still personally opposes it.
“We’ll listen to the debate and see if someone changes my mind,” the Quincy Democrat said Monday.
The governor said in September that he opposed same-day registration because of the “complexity” it would create on 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.”
Beyond Massachusetts, voting rights has emerged as a heated and partisan issue across the country, as adherents of former president Donald Trump refuse to accept that he lost reelection in 2020. In response to the election skepticism stoked by his disproven claims of fraud, some conservative-led states are making it harder to vote.
At least 19 states have enacted 34 laws to restrict access to voting since the start of 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
At the same time, Democrats assert that the early voting and mail-in-balloting allowed during the pandemic expanded the electorate, in particular driving up votes in communities of color.
The national partisan rancor over the issue grew even more divisive this month, when Republicans rejected voting rights measures, including one named for the late civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, and Democrats, with their narrow majority, were unable to deliver them.
In that national context, some progressive state representatives are pushing House leaders to move forward on same-day registration.
Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville Democrat, said Massachusetts should be among the states enfranchising more voters by embracing same-day registration.
“Maine has been doing it since 1973,” she said. “This is not a hot, new idea.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert. Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.