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Mass. lawmakers agree to make vote-by-mail permanent, balk at same-day registration

A roll of 'I Voted Today' stickers sat on a table at Town Hall in Richmond during the state's presidential primary election in 2020.Stephanie Zollshan/Associated Press

State legislative leaders on Wednesday reached a compromise on a sweeping elections law bill that will, for the first time, make no-excuse voting by mail permanent in Massachusetts, formally embracing a pandemic-era change.

But, in a blow to voting rights advocates, the package stripped out a Senate-passed provision to establish same-day voter registration in the state, killing for now a change that had drawn opposition from many House Democrats and Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican.

The Senate is poised to vote on the compromise bill Thursday, and the House could take it up as early as next week. Baker, too, has backed the implementation of mail-in voting, and should he sign the package in time, lawmakers say expanded mail-in voting would then be in place ahead of the state’s Sept. 6 primary.

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“You’re going to see record turnouts again for a primary and a general election for the governor’s race, just because of having [the option of] vote-by-mail and early voting,” said state Senator Barry R. Finegold, the chamber’s lead negotiator. “Clearly we’re going to have more people participate because of these new changes in the law.”

The House and Senate had each passed differing versions of the package before the bill sat in a six-person negotiating committee for more than four months. The chambers embraced similar language on several provisions, including making what’s known as “no excuse” absentee voting standard.

In 2020, the Legislature had passed language allowing for mail-in voting on a temporary basis to accommodate the pandemic. Lawmakers then extended the provision twice before letting it expire in mid-December. A record 1.7 million people cast votes in the September 2020 primary, with nearly half of those being cast by mail.

Massachusetts could now join at least 26 states and Washington, D.C., that 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.

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Under the current law, voters are expected to cast their ballots in person unless they qualify for an absentee ballot. To be eligible, 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.

Under the bill that emerged Wednesday, the secretary of state’s office would be required to send mail-in ballot applications to registered voters before each presidential primary, state primary, and biennial state election. The state would mail ballots to only those who apply for one, a difference from some states that conduct so-called all-mail elections, such as Colorado and California.

The bill also would establish two weeks of early in-person voting for the biennial state elections and one week of early in-person for presidential or state primaries. It also moves up the deadline to register to vote from 20 days before a preliminary, primary, or general election to 10 days.

Same-day registration, however, remained a sticking point among legislators, and ultimately was not included. 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.

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Fearing House opposition, advocates pushed legislators to agree to establishing same-day registration for Election Day itself. But House Democrats have long been cool to the concept, with some arguing it could open the door to people voting without candidates having the chance to “woo” them during their campaigns.

“That was not something we could have pushed,” said state Senator Cynthia S. Creem, the Senate majority leader and a member of the Senate’s negotiating team. She said the upcoming September state primary, and the ability for the secretary of state and local clerks to prepare for it, made it untenable to keep the bill in negotiations.

“One would say, ‘Hold out, hold out.’ But if we held out too long, what we did wouldn’t be a reality” for the fall elections, said Creem, a Newton Democrat. “It would be on our heads if we did nothing. It comes to a point that you have to do what’s good for the most people . . . This [bill] moves the needle a lot.”

State Representative Michael J. Moran, the House’s lead negotiator, said Wednesday the state already has broken down barriers to registering, including by implementing automatic voter registration and online registration, enough that he said Massachusetts is the “gold standard” without the same-day option.

“We have made it so easy to register to vote. If you’re not registered, given the options in front of you, that barrier is self-imposed,” said the Brighton Democrat, noting the House did not embrace same-day proposals in 2020 or this year. “The will of the House wasn’t there.”

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Lawmakers also faced the prospect of opposition from the governor on same-day registration. Baker, who is not running for reelection, said last year 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 during a September appearance on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”

Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, said the bill is a step in the right direction, but also framed the exclusion of same-day registration as a missed opportunity “to double down on equity.”

“I think we made pretty considerable strides toward securing same-day registration in the future,” she said.

The compromise bill that emerged Wednesday would give towns and cities the option to set up drop boxes for mail-in ballots, according to lawmakers. And while mail-in voting would be in place for state and presidential elections, towns and cities could opt out of offering early voting by mail for any standalone local elections.

The bill also seeks to make it easier for thousands of incarcerated people who are eligible to vote to cast a ballot. It would require jails to assist them with applying for and returning mail-in ballots, and to distribute voter education and election information materials.

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Under the Massachusetts Constitution, convicted felons lose their voting rights while incarcerated and would still not be eligible while in jail or prison. But people who are being held on pretrial detention but have not been convicted, for example, are still eligible.


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