It’s tradition. Millions of Massachusetts voters tromping to the polls the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every two years. But under a bill that passed the state House of Representatives today, that ritual is set to go the way of horse and buggy and the typewriter. The legislation would allow voters to cast their ballots up to 11 business days before a general election, as well as to register to vote online, measures supporters say will boost turnout and makes democracy more accessible to everyone.
The bill, which is expected to soon pass the Senate and be signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick, would also let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote.
“Massachusetts has a rich history of civic involvement and I believe this legislation will foster a more vigorous, inclusive and just elections process,” Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement. “This bill improves voting efficiency and helps give citizens across the Commonwealth a voice.”
For elections that happen once every two years — but not special elections or primary elections — the bill would allow residents to vote early: from 11 business days before the election through the day before Election Day. Under the bill, the first early voting would take place in 2016, the year of the next presidential election. The legislation requires online voter registration to be available by no later than August 2015.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin said early voting “should encourage and improve turnout.”
Currently, voters can request an absentee ballot and vote before Election Day only if they have one of three legal excuses: a physical disability that would prevent them from making it to their polling place, a religious belief that would keep them from voting on Election Day, or if they will be absent from their town or city on the day of the election.
Galvin said those requirements confused people and “complicated their ability to vote.” Under the bill, voters do not need to have an excuse to vote early.
Outside groups that advocate wider voter involvement lauded the bill.
“It will do a lot of good for voter participation here in Massachusetts,” said Sara Brady, the policy director of MassVOTE, a non-profit that advocates for broader voting rights. Based on data from other states, Brady said she expected the legislation would help boost turnout across the state, in particular in communities of color.
Early voting is already available to residents in 33 states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“This bill is a huge step forward in modernizing our elections and expanding voting rights here in Massachusetts,” Pam Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, which has advocated for the legislation, said in a statement.
The bill, which also includes a provision for random audits of a small percentage of precincts after every presidential election, passed the House by a huge margin: 145-4.
State Senator Barry R. Finegold, the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, said he expects bill to pass Senate on Thursday.
State Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, called it “a reasonable compromise that puts some reforms in place that are good without unduly burdening cities, towns and clerks.”
He noted that the law required early voting places to be open only during the normal business hours of the town and city clerks, with evening and weekend hours at their discretion.
Patrick has spoken glowingly about early voting in the past and is expected to sign the bill. An official in his office said it would be reviewed when it reached the governor’s desk.