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Baker vetoes automatic voter registration parts of supplemental budget

Governor Charlie Baker on Friday vetoed parts of the state’s supplemental budget concerning automatic voter registration, saying the proposed sections would render the system unavailable for next year’s presidential primary.
Governor Charlie Baker on Friday vetoed parts of the state’s supplemental budget concerning automatic voter registration, saying the proposed sections would render the system unavailable for next year’s presidential primary. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Friday vetoed parts of the state’s supplemental budget concerning automatic voter registration, saying the proposed sections would render the system unavailable for next year’s presidential primary.

“I cannot approve sections that would jeopardize the success of the program and require a substantial change to the voter registration process in the middle of an election cycle,” said Baker in a letter to the Legislature.

Under an automatic voter registration measure signed into law last year, eligible residents who interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles or the MassHealth program have to opt out if they don’t want to join the voter rolls, rather than opt in.

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Advocacy groups, including Common Cause Massachusetts, MassVOTE, and the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, had advocated for the language in this year’s supplemental budget, saying it “merely confirms the Legislature’s decision in last year’s law about the best method for someone to opt out of being automatically registered to vote.”

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, which is a good government advocacy group, said her organization was disappointed “that the governor is endorsing an inferior system of automatic voter registration.” She hoped the Legislature would override Baker’s veto.

The 2018 law calls for a simpler system than the one that is currently being implemented, she said. The section vetoed by Baker “essentially tells the RMV to do what the Legislature passed in 2018,” said Wilmot. The language that has been tested for automatic voter registration at the RMV has been confusing, said Wilmot.

“The law spells out the process, the way you decline to register to vote, how to opt out of the system; and the Registry is doing it in a different way, in a way that we think is more confusing and that does not work as well as the system that was passed in 2018,” said Wilmot during a phone interview Friday.

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However, Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top election official, had encouraged Baker to veto the automatic voter registration sections of the supplemental budget.

“This language, if approved, would significantly impact the way in which local election officials process voter registration information,” Galvin said in a Thursday letter to Baker.

Galvin added that the language would delay the effective date of registration for people registering through automatic voter registration agencies and “would be impossible to implement by the proposed effective date of April 2020.”

On Thursday, lawmakers passed a supplemental budget that avoided a potential legal clash with the state comptroller, capping a weeks-long dispute over how to spend the state’s $1 billion surplus. The bill included $541 million in spending, a drastic reduction from the versions both the House and Senate had previously passed.

Baker, while rejecting the four sections relating to automatic voter registration, approved the rest of the bill.

“The proposed sections would delay implementation until April 1, 2020, rendering AVR unavailable for the 2020 presidential primary, and, more importantly, would significantly change voter registration procedures a mere 18 days before our go-live date to implement this important law,” said Baker in his Friday letter.

Messages left with Senate President Karen Spilka’s office were not returned Friday evening. House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office offered no comment before 7:30 p.m.

Attempts to reach the respective chairmen for the House and Senate ways and means committees were not immediately successful Friday evening.

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In reaching the deal over the supplemental budget this week, legislators sliced what both chambers had previously earmarked — and Baker had requested — for the MBTA, whittling the extra funding from $50 million to $32 million days after a high-profile report criticized the T for not prioritizing safety.

The bill will push another $587 million into the state’s emergency savings account, also known as the Rainy Day Fund. The measure also moves the 2020 state primary to Sept. 1.


Matt Stout and Victoria McGrane of Globe staff contributed to this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.