By Andy Metzger and Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
---- — BOSTON — The Senate passed a comprehensive election reforms bill yesterday that allows for early voting, online and election-day registration, and gives teens the ability to pre-register two years before they turn 18.
Senators adopted amendments during debate on the bill Thursday that expanded the election laws bill, which already went further than the bill that cleared the House regarding early voting provisions, to include provisions that would allow for election-day voter registration and permanent registration for residents who move within the state.
Andover Democrat Sen. Barry Finegold, who helped craft the bill as co-chair of the Election Laws Committee, called it a “great bill” that had bi-partisan support. Finegold said the amendments senators adopted strengthen the legislation (S 1975).
“It is all about giving people as much opportunity to participate in the political process,” Finegold told the News Service after the Senate passed the bill. “And families are very busy. They have so much going on, and I think with early voting, to be able to vote, you know, during the weekends, to be able to vote up to 10 days early, we’re going to have more people be able to participate in the process. At the same time, with same day registration, I think just as they have seen in other states, I think we’re going to see a big increase in people participating and that’s what we want in our democracy.”
The bill passed the Senate 37-1.
Early voting under the Senate bill would begin 10 business days before any general or primary election and end two days before. Early voting would begin in 2016, under the legislation, and apply to all state biennial elections. The House bill allowed for early voting only in presidential elections.
The competing bills (H3788 / S1975) will now likely head to a conference committee where House and Senate lawmakers will try to negotiate compromise on the differences between the versions.
Thirty-two other states allow early voting, a switch that will allow more people to participate in the process, Finegold said. Senate Ways and Means estimated the cost of the reforms, before the bill was amended, to be between $3 million and $6 million per election cycle.
Teenagers who receive their driver’s license or permits will be able to pre-register to vote when they get their driving privileges at age 16 or 17. Proponents hope this will increase the number of young people who vote.
Also under the bill, residents with a Massachusetts driver’s license will be able to register online.
The legislation also requires municipal election officials to attend annual training given by the secretary of state’s office to learn about state and federal elections laws. It also eliminates the requirement for a “check-out” desk at polling places, and clarifies that the police detail requirement at polling locations may not apply to early voting sites.
The Senate adopted an amendment file by Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, which would allow people to register to vote on the day of an election by completing a registration affidavit and providing proof of residency.
Petruccelli said the new policy would replace the current requirement that eligible voters register 20 days before and election, and he said it would increase turnout.
Another amendment adopted by the Senate allows residents to be permanently registered to vote in the state even after a move within Massachusetts.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who sponsored the amendment, said American’s mobile lifestyle makes permanent registration necessary.
“We are losing ballots and we are losing voters to the failure of a very simple thing, the failure to simply update an address,” Chang-Diaz said.
Chang-Diaz’s plan would allow voters to remain registered by requiring the secretary of state to use already available data from the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the U.S. Postal Service to automatically update people’s registration data.
“Your registration sticks with you,” she said.
Sen. Robert Hedlund argued against the amendment, saying it would be burdensome and unlikely that municipal clerks would be able to rely on the U.S. Postal Service and the Registry of Motor Vehicles to help them keep track of people’s addresses.
Hedlund said people have to change their addresses on many things when they move, including utility bills. Registering to vote is just one of them, he said.
“I know the politically correct position today is you want to make it as easy as possible for people to vote. But there are certain things you are going to have to go through when you move,” he said.
“This is just trying to make something that is already easy and make it a nightmare for our clerks,” he added.
Finegold said he supported the amendment because the technology to cross-check databases should be easy to incorporate in the voting process.
Another amendment, filed by Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell) would allow 17-year-olds in Lowell to vote in municipal elections, if the proposal passes in a city referendum question.
“We thank Sen. Donoghue for her commitment that led to a victory for young people, for Lowell, and for the electoral process,” said Geoff Foster, associate director of political action at the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who said he supported the intention to increase turnout, offered a few amendments that he said would uphold the integrity of the voting process by requiring voters to provide verification in the form of a photo ID, government document or other form.
Tarr said that more people in Massachusetts have registered for a driver’s license than are registered to vote, and rejected a contention made by Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, that the move for more verification is motivated by a desire to exclude some from the voting process.
“This is not an idea that landed from some other planet in order to be punitive to a particular group of people. In fact, it’s an idea that’s being used in 30 states, by the federal government, that is sanctioned by state law, to make sure that every group of people is protected with regard to the sanctity of their vote,” Tarr said, referencing a 2002 federal law that required people who registered to vote by mail to supply verification the next time they vote.
Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said she considered Tarr’s proposal with an open mind, but determined that a woman named Carmen who provides her with housekeeping might not have the required documents, as she does not drive.
Upon hearing Chang-Diaz’s comments, Tarr said he would alter his amendment, and later made changes so that a Social Security card could be used even though it does not provide the person’s address. The changes were not enough to sway Chang-Diaz or her fellow Democrats who defeated Tarr’s amendment 9-29.
“I certainly appreciate his efforts to make the amendment more amenable, but I did not think it met the need,” Chang-Diaz told the News Service after the vote. She said not everyone has a Social Security card, and said, “There are lots of individuals out there who have lives that are very different from ours.”