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State bill would ease ways to register voters

Secretary of State William Galvin.Craig F. Walker/globe staff/file 2017

The Massachusetts secretary of state is pushing legislation that would automatically register people to vote through interactions with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth.

Secretary William Galvin said in a prepared statement Thursday that the bill, which would establish a system that would automatically register eligible residents to vote when they renewed their license at the registry or applied for MassHealth, would “increase access and voter participation” in Massachusetts.

“It’s a more efficient use of our resources,” said Galvin, the state’s top elections official, during a phone interview Thursday.

Massachusetts has about 680,000 residents who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered, according to the Election Modernization Coalition, a group of advocates that supports the proposal.


“We think that’s too much,” said Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government advocacy group that is part of that coalition.

Automatic voter registration, said Wilmot, is “a way of improving the accuracy and security of elections as well as bringing more people into the election.”

Under the proposed system, eligible residents would be given the chance to opt out of automatically registering to vote, according to Wilmot.

In Oregon, under such a system, 230,000 voters were registered to vote during its first six months, according to Wilmot. During that same time period, Oregon’s system also updated more than 265,000 inaccurate voting addresses, she said.

Ten other states and Washington, D.C. have also passed automatic voter registration legislation, according to advocates supporting the proposal.

Meryl Kessler, a representative of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, said in a statement that the proposal would “remove real obstacles to political participation, ensuring that more voices can be heard.”

Josh Zakim, a Boston city councilor who is running for Galvin’s seat, criticized the six-term incumbent for not backing automatic voter registration earlier.


“He’s late to the party, but I welcome him to add his voice to it,” said Zakim, adding that the proposal is a “great policy” that would “increase turnout.”

Galvin said during the phone interview that he wasn’t interested in discussing his opponent, but did say that his office has been making steady progress on voter registration “for years,” citing online registration implemented in 2015. For more than 20 years, he said, state residents have had the opportunity to register to vote at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, though they weren’t automatically registered.

Galvin said he was comfortable that the voter information coming through the registry and through MassHealth — which is the state’s Medicaid program combined with the Children’s Health Insurance Program — would be accurate.

“I know the quality of the data they’ll have will be reliable,” he said.

For an automatic voter registration system to be effective for the next presidential election in 2020, legislation should be passed this year, said Galvin.

“It needs to move,” he said.

Gavi Wolfe, legislative director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, which is part of the coalition endorsing the proposal, also called for Beacon Hill lawmakers to act swiftly.

“Easier and more automatic voter registration is a really important thing to do to increase ballot access and improve our democracy,” he said.

Galvin said he did not have an estimate of how much it would cost to implement an automatic voter registration system.

One cost would be for mailings informing citizens that they’ve been registered to vote and that they have the option of selecting a political party, he said.


The bill is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee, according to Wilmot.

The proposal will need to pass the House and Senate, then go to Governor Charlie Baker for his approval.

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald
. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.