On Thursday, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill approving online voter registration, early voting, and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds, and public audits of elections. The bill now goes to Governor Deval Patrick, who is expected to sign it.
Here’s who wins and who loses under the new law:
Winner: Young People
Because they rarely own homes and often move, young adults need to register to vote far more frequently than older people. Online registration will make that process much easier. And pre-registration will increase participation among 18 and 19-year-olds, who will now be able to send in their registration form at any time after they turn 16.
Winner: The good government lobby, the Legislature, the governor, and Rep. Katherine Clark
Passing election legislation is extremely tricky, since changing the rules of the game can impact which politicians win and lose. Leading champions for the bill, including Reps. Mike Moran and Jamie Murphy, and Sens. Barry Finegold and Sal Didomenico, get a feather in their cap, as do Speaker DeLeo, Senate President Murray, and Gov. Patrick. US Rep. Clark also gets a nod, since she was the one who first sponsored online registration back in her state Senate days. Good government groups like MassVOTE, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters should also celebrate .(Disclosure: I am a former director of MassVote.)
Loser: Secretary of State Bill Galvin
Behind the scenes, Galvin opposed key parts of this bill from the outset, and especially exerted leverage against pre-registration for teenagers and public audits of election machines. In both cases, the Legislature dismissed his concerns.
Loser: City budgets, especially Boston’s
Under the new law, each city and town must set up at least one early voting location, but each municipality can decide to add more locations — if they are willing to pay the costs. Boston will have to either pay to set up lots of locations or risk decreasing Boston’s vote totals and its overall political clout. Long a booster of good government reforms, you can bet Boston Mayor Marty Walsh will find the money for more locations.
Loser: The “show ID to vote’’ zealots
The lack of evidence for meaningful voter fraud has not stopped voter ID proponents from pushing for strict ID laws in state after state. Even lawmakers who oppose ID provisions sometimes shy away from working on elections improvements out of fear of the debate over ID. In Massachusetts, for now at least, the voter ID dragon has been slain.
Winner: Poll workers and busy voters
Until this law, Bay State voters have faced some of the least friendly absentee voter programs in the nation. Poll workers, for example, have had to vote in person on Election Day. They could not vote ahead of time even if they were going to spend the day helping administer the election. Busy parents or workers wanted to vote absentee? Forget it. Now, at least in state and federal elections every other November, any registered voter can vote absentee by mail or in person.
Loser: 2014’s candidates and voters
Sweeping change takes time to implement, so none of the central features of the new law will be in place by November — they will take effect in time for the next presidential election. So Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, Charlie Baker and the like will not be able to use any of the new options to register and turn out their voters.
Massachusetts has long had some of the worst racial disparities in the nation in voter participation — so bad, in fact, that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts mentioned them in a 2013 voting rights case. National rankings of state elections systems have consistently put Massachusetts in the mediocre middle of the pack or worse. Those rankings will improve now – and the new registration tools are likely to decrease the state’s glaring disparities.
Massachusetts may not be a thought leader on election reforms, but its laws just caught up to the 21st century. That’s good news for every voter.
Avi Green is co-chair of the Scholars Strategy Network Working Group on Protecting and Expanding the Right to Vote.