Senate unanimously backs automatic voter registration; bill may reach governor soon
The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed legislation Thursday that would automatically register thousands of new voters when they get their driver’s licenses or health insurance through the state, moving closer to what advocates say could be one of the farthest-reaching programs of its kind in the country.
If the bill is signed into law, Massachusetts would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia to pass or implement automatic voter-registration measures, including three that have done so this year.
Under the bill, which has also passed the House, eligible residents who interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles or the MassHealth program would have to opt out if they don’t want to join the voter rolls, rather than opt in.
The bill would also allow the secretary of state to reach agreements with state agencies to automatically register voters if they meet certain criteria, potentially further expanding the net the state can cast to reach eligible residents.
“If it isn’t the strongest, it’s the second-strongest bill in the country,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, referencing a law Maryland passed in April that also includes local social services departments. “One of the next steps, once we get this implemented, is to look at: Where are we missing voters, and what agencies do they interact with?”
Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Thursday that the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which administers benefits like food stamps, could be another agency to include in the plan. The bill requires any eligible department to verify whether a person is a US citizen and show it can “materially increase” the pool of registered voters.
“Obviously we would welcome other agencies, if they can meet those criteria,” Galvin said, adding about the bill: “I think it will certainly be one of the more progressive — I hate to use that word — it will be one of the more active efforts in the country. We’re anxious to get it going.”
Most states designate motor vehicle departments or license renewals as points of registration. (Alaska residents are automatically registered when they sign up to receive dividend payments from the state’s oil revenue fund.)
But five states have language that would allow other agencies to be included, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Just two of those, Maryland and Washington, include their health benefit exchange, as Massachusetts would.
The Senate passed the bill weeks after the House approved a similar version by a wide margin, 130 to 20. The two chambers have to iron out some technical differences before the measure can be sent to Governor Charlie Baker, who has not taken a public stance on the legislation. His spokeswoman, Lizzy Guyton, said he would carefully review it.
As of last year, there were 4,486,849 registered voters in Massachusetts, according to state data. Wilmot estimated 500,000 voters would be added to the rolls in the next five years if the bill becomes law.
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.
But even as several states embrace automatic voter registration, only a few have implemented it. Massachusetts’ law would take effect in 2020, six months after law in Maryland and Washington, for example.
It’s difficult to determine how effective the changes will be until they’re put into action, said Jonathan Brater, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, which tracks and advocates for such legislation.
“The key is having as many agencies as possible, as long as those agencies have populations that you aren’t already reaching,” Brater said.
Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim, who is challenging Galvin in a Democratic primary this year, also floated the potential of using the University of Massachusetts system and community colleges to register students. But he cautioned against moving too quickly.
“It’s a great change, but it is a big change,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s going smoothly at the RMV and MassHealth.”
The bill has drawn wide support, including from each of the Senate’s seven Republicans.
“It should be the state’s burden to register voters — not yours,” Senate President Harriette L. Chandler said Thursday in a statement. “Today is a major victory for voting rights and social justice.”
But not all agree. Anthony Amore, the GOP candidate for secretary of state, said the bill would create an “unfunded burden” on local election officials and doesn’t address “the real reasons people stay home on Election Day: They don’t like the candidates or the issues, and they believe their vote won’t make a difference.”
Currently, eligible Massachusetts residents — US citizens who aren’t incarcerated felons — must register to vote at least 20 days prior to an election. They can register online if the Registry of Motor Vehicles has a signature on file, by US mail, or in person at local election offices, one of the secretary of state’s branch offices, at the RMV, and at certain public assistance agencies.
Advocates who have pushed for automatic registration said it can make voting easier for the poor and communities of color.