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Massachusetts lawmakers send Baker a bill allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented people

A May rally in front of the State House urged lawmakers to support driver's licenses for undocumented residents.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Legislature on Thursday sent Governor Charlie Baker a bill that would allow people without legal immigration status to obtain a driver’s license, realizing the passage of a proposal that’s been debated for decades on Beacon Hill.

The House and the Senate both advanced the bill Thursday with a veto-proof majority — 118-36 and 32-8, respectively. It assured lawmakers cleared what Democratic leaders considered a key hurdle after Baker has repeatedly expressed opposition to the measure.

Baker has not said whether he would veto the bill, but the second-term Republican, who is not seeking reelection this year, has indicated he fears the proposal could lead to illegal voting in Massachusetts elections.

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The suggestion has prompted pushback from Democrats, including Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top elections official, who’s argued that “nothing could be further from the truth.”

The bill’s passage, after years of failed advocacy framing the issue as one of social justice, came after proponents tightened its language to draw more support from law enforcement. The bill has been backed by the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police.

Should the bill become law, people without legal immigration status could obtain a license by providing two documents that prove their identity, such as a foreign passport and a birth certificate or a consular identification card and state marriage certificate or divorce decree.

Thursday’s votes, while crucial, were not surprising. Both chambers had previously passed similar versions of the legislation this year, each time by veto-proof margins and in the Senate’s case, by the exact same count.

House and Senate officials ironed out minor differences between the two versions last week, and Democratic leaders sought to assure their colleagues Thursday that provisions they earlier supported were still intact, including the requirement that people seeking licenses show at least two other types of documentation.

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“That public safety standard is the touchstone for this bill,” state Representative William M. Straus, the House chairman of the transportation committee, said from the House floor.

The proposal would impact roughly 250,000 undocumented people living in Massachusetts, and, its supporters contend, the millions they share the roads with, by assuring more drivers are both trained and able to get insurance.

Proponents have also said the bill is crucial to allowing immigrant parents, including those with children born in the United States, to drive them to doctor appointments or school without fear of being pulled over for small infractions and being detained because of their immigration status.

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia already allow undocumented people to receive driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The new ID requirements would take effect on July 1, 2023.

Massachusetts residents appeared split on the issue, according to Suffolk University/Boston Globe. A narrow plurality of those surveyed — 47 percent — said they oppose such legislation, while 46 percent support it, the poll found.

Baker, a longtime opponent to the concept, said this month he believes passage of the bill could spur “huge numbers of provisional votes,” arguing it will then make it harder for people to figure out “who actually won elections.”

The Democratic-led Senate this month had rejected amendments from Republican members that would create a new license type with different requirements and require that the license to say “not eligible to vote” written in “bold text.”

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It is against the law for noncitizens to vote in state and federal elections. The bill also requires the Registry of Motor Vehicles must “ensure” noncitizens would not be automatically registered under a current state law that registers those of voting age who seek driver’s license.

Baker has also raised concerns that while those without legal immigration status would not be issued a so-called REAL ID — which next year will become the only type of license accepted to board US flights — there would be little differentiating the licenses they receive and standard licenses issued to US citizens by the state.

“This license we’re talking about is not a privilege-to-drive card, which is what they have in a bunch of other states. It looks exactly like a Massachusetts driver’s license,” Baker said during a March appearance on GBH’s Boston Public Radio. “You can’t tell the difference between this and a regular one.”

Support for the bill has largely fallen along partisan lines, with a handful of Democrats in each chamber joining Republicans in voting against it.

Both Democrats running for governor, Attorney General Maura Healey and state Senator Sonia Sonia Chang-Díaz, have supported the bill, while the Republican gubernatorial candidates — former state lawmaker Geoff Diehl and businessman Chris Doughty — have each spoken against it.

Diehl said Thursday that if he were governor, he would “flatly veto” the bill and warned it would “threaten the integrity of our elections.” Diehl has also previously echoed former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

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“This is precisely the ill-advised radical progressive agenda that I am campaigning against,” Diehl said.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.