The House voted 141-10 Wednesday to approve legislation authorizing early voting in presidential elections and online registration in Massachusetts, major changes that supporters claimed will broaden voter engagement.
House Election Laws Committee Rep. James Murphy (D-Weymouth) said the panel had heard “loud and clear” the call for reforms to expand access to voting. The bill also calls for municipal clerk training and creates task forces on implementation of election audits and to study early voting following its implementation in the 2016 election.
“It is an important moment in the history of election laws and for voting here in the Commonwealth,” said Murphy, who predicted early voting and online registration would lead to shorter lines at the polls on election day.
Rep. Linda Campbell (D-Methuen) called the bill’s passage a “long time coming” and predicted the changes, if enacted into law, would prove particularly useful to individuals with disabilities, senior citizens and people who travel abroad for business.
19 states allow online voter registration and early voting is available in 32 states
Election reform advocates say 19 states allow online voter registration and early voting is available in 32 states.
Before passing the bill (H 3772), the House voted 116-36 for an amendment to study the idea of requiring voter identification as part of the early voting process.
The study vote precluded a vote on an ID amendment offered by House Republicans, who argued that the new early voting provision would present challenges, compounded by the introduction of online voter registration.
ID amendment called “voter suppression lite.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the voter ID amendment held up voting as a sacred right and a fundamental part of democracy, as Rep. Steve Walsh, a Lynn Democrat, described the GOP proposal as “voter suppression lite.”
Though Rep. Vinny deMacedo's amendment allowed for the Registry of Motor Vehicles to issue identification free of charge to individuals found to be indigent, opponents argued that the ID requirement could disenfranchise some voters in Massachusetts.
Rep. Marc Lombardo noted photo ID is required to see R-rated movies, take an Amtrak train, or to buy spray paint, cigarettes or alcohol. He said that in order to practice his Second Amendment rights, he had to not only present ID, but also had to submit his fingerprints and go through a background check.
Rep. Anne-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, said she is not required to show ID before driving, or before using her firearm but only when she is suspected of wrongdoing.
Massachusetts would become the 20th state to allow online registration
The Election Modernization Coalition, made up of 45 advocacy groups, said Massachusetts would become the 20th state to allow online registration and the 33rd state with early voting.
The registration provisions would allow citizens to register to vote online if they are already in the Registry of Motor Vehicles database, and voters would have to show identification when voting for the first time.
“We need to do everything we can to remove barriers to exercising the right to vote,” said Gavi Wolfe, of the Massachusetts ACLU. “We hope these reforms, and more, make it to the Governor’s desk without delay.”
Under the bill, the early voting period will take place during the two full business weeks before the presidential elections. Early voting hours will be regular or normal business hours of the particular early voting location, which will be “either a city hall election office, a town hall clerk's office, or another centrally-located, suitable and convenient location,” according to Rep. Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown).
As formal sessions were coming to a close for the year, the bill was sent to the Senate for its consideration.