Metro

Automatic voter registration may be coming to Mass. — and bringing 500,000 new voters with it

Quincy Ma 11/03/2015 Voters Molly Mahoney (cq) left with her mother Stella Mahoney (cq) right at Ward 5 Precinct 3 during their voting process. .Staff/Photographer Jonathan Wiggs Topic: Reporter
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/file
Voters at Ward 5 Precinct 3 in Quincy.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would automatically register hundreds of thousands of new Massachusetts voters who get licenses at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and who get their medical care through the state’s MassHealth program for the poor and disabled.

If the legislation becomes law, instead of having to opt-in to register to vote, many eligible Massachusetts residents would have to opt-out if they don’t want to register to vote.

Advocates cheered the bill’s passage, which they said would make Massachusetts the 14th state to embrace such a measure.

Advertisement

“Automatic voter registration is the next step in voting rights,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “It will increase voter participation while at the same time making the process is more accurate and secure. That’s a win-win-win for everyone, regardless of your political background.”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The House vote was 130-20.

The Senate backs the effort. Senate President Harriette L. Chandler “is supportive of automatic voter registration and is generally supportive of the legislation as drafted,” said her spokesman Scott Zoback.

Governor Charlie Baker “will carefully review any legislation that reaches his desk,” said his spokesman, Brendan Moss, when asked about the measure.

As of last year, there were 4,486,849 registered voters in Massachusetts, according to state data. Wilmot estimated 500,000 new voters would come onto Massachusetts voter rolls in the next five years if the bill becomes law.

Advertisement

The bill would also have Massachusetts join the Electronic Registration Information Center, a 22-state consortium that shares voter and motor vehicle license data to help keep the rolls up-to-date and free of people who have moved out of each state.

The legislation has broad support.

“I’m very enthusiastic about supporting it.” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. “It will reduce the number of people who are eligible but have not registered. Will it mean higher turnouts? We’d like to hope so, but we don’t know.”

The secretary said if the bill becomes law, it will boost registration among lower socio-economic groups who might otherwise not register. And, he said, the automatic opt-in provision will eliminate a problem that affects thousands of people: They thought they had registered to vote when they got their driver’s license, but actually hadn’t.

Josh Zakim, a Boston city councilor and Democratic primary challenger to Galvin on Sept. 4, said if the bill becomes law, it could go a long way toward “democratizing our democracy.”

Advertisement

“Looking to experience in other states, communities of color, younger people, and lower income people have really been benefitted the most by this,” he said.

There is support for the effort on the other side of the aisle, too.

Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the House minority leader, and several of his GOP colleagues voted for the bill.

But not all Republicans are on board.

Anthony Amore, the GOP candidate for secretary of state, said the legislation, which he does not support, is flawed and creates an unfunded mandate for the cities and towns that will shoulder the burden of the new program.

“Automatic voter registration does nothing to address the real reasons people stay home on Election Day,” he said. “Citizens don’t vote because they don’t like the candidates or the issues, and they believe their vote won’t make a difference. Nowhere is this truer than in a one-party state riddled with entrenched power and career politicians.”

Advocates dispute the legislation would trouble local election officials or burden them with new costs. A top lobbyist for cities and towns said he expected local officials to be reimbursed by the state for any additional costs the bill might force them to incur.

Representative James J. Lyons Jr., Republican of Andover, said he’s against the idea and framed it as unnecessary.

“Go down to the town hall, register to vote,” he said. “It should not be automatic voting. We have a right to vote in this country and people can exercise that right pretty easily.”

Under current law, eligible Massachusetts residents — US citizens who aren’t incarcerated felons — can register to vote for any election 20 days prior to its date. They can register online if the RMV has a signature on file. They can also register via US mail or in person at local election offices like a town hall, at one of the branches of the secretary of state, at the RMV, and certain public assistance agencies.

People as young as 16 can register, but you have to be 18 years old to vote.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.