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With Question 4, GOP wants to trade safety for votes

Republicans are trying goose conservative turnout in November with a ballot question to repeal a law allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.

The Massachusetts State HouseCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Florida and Texas aren’t the only states where Republicans are fear-mongering about immigrants to whip up support in November.

It’s happening here, too, with a GOP-led ballot question that would repeal a law, passed by state lawmakers in June, allowing undocumented residents to apply for driver’s licenses.

What’s happening here is almost as naked and heartless a political ploy as Governor Ron DeSantis trying to strand planeloads of Venezuelan asylum-seekers on Martha’s Vineyard. Worse, Question 4 is an attempt to win votes at the expense of public safety.

The Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, and a majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, support allowing undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses, and for good reason. Tens of thousands of those immigrants are driving anyway, mostly to get to work. We are all safer if everybody on the roads is tested, licensed, and insured.

That’s not mere speculation: Sixteen states have done this before us, and the sky hasn’t fallen in any of them.

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What has fallen are hit-and-run crashes. A report by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center has the numbers. After California started licensing drivers regardless of immigration status, adding 600,000 licensed drivers to the roads in 2015, there were 7 to 10 percent fewer hit-and-runs per year. In Connecticut, they dropped by 9 percent. Utah saw an 80 percent drop in uninsured drivers after passing a similar law, and in New Mexico, there were 60 percent fewer uninsured drivers. That means savings for other drivers: A 2017 study found that 4,000 fewer hit-and-runs in California in the first year after the law went into effect saved not-at-fault drivers some $3.5 million in repair costs.

There are other benefits. MassBudget estimates that some 45,000 to 85,000 undocumented immigrants would get licenses within the first three years after the law kicks in next summer, and that they’d generate $5 million in state fees for licenses and inspections. More insured drivers mean everybody’s premiums might drop a little. And, in an unexpected bonus, California saw an 18 percent increase in people checking the organ donation box on their licenses in the year it started offering licenses to undocumented immigrants.

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You don’t have to have a bleeding heart, or have any heart at all, to see the good sense in this.

“The good news is, once it was passed, it became a non-issue in Oregon,” said Ron Louie, an advocate for the law there who is the former police chief in Hillsboro, a city just west of Portland and teaches criminal justice at Portland State University. “It became a practical matter.”

Rather than arguing on the merits, conservatives here are invoking their favorite bogeyman in an attempt to persuade voters to nix the law: voter fraud. They warn that undocumented immigrants who are granted driver’s licenses will use them to try to vote.

That is not going to happen, said Secretary of State William Galvin.

“These people aren’t looking to vote,” he said. “This is a manufactured argument designed to defeat the law and energize the base.”

Galvin said the state already checks for citizenship when residents register to vote. He’s suggesting adding a code for the new licenses in the system to be sure nobody makes a mistake, but advocates say that is unnecessary and singles out the immigrants. The fact is that all kinds of noncitizens can already get licenses in Massachusetts, including DACA recipients, green card holders, and those with Temporary Protected Status, and they don’t try to vote, so why would others without any sort of legal status try to do so?

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“It’s an argument with no substance whatsoever,” said Lynn Senator Brendan Crighton, who pushed for the law. “To think these people would be willing to throw away their lives, to risk prison time and fines and loss of their homes and families and maybe never be allowed to come back here again, it’s just really silly.”

Ah, but “really silly” is the Massachusetts Republican Party’s middle name. Will voters fall for their ploy? A July Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found that 58 percent of voters support the new law, but there’s plenty of time before Nov. 8 for a party bereft of actual ideas to scare supporters off.

Don’t let them. A Yes on Question 4 makes us all safer.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.