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A bill designed to overhaul Massachusetts voting laws — including allowing early voting up to 11 days before Election Day — is one step closer to winning approval.
The legislation would also allow online voter registration and let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote. They would be automatically be registered once they turn 18.
The legislation would also create an online portal to check voter registration status and provides for postelection audits of randomly selected precincts after presidential elections.
Voting rights groups have long pushed for the early voting provision arguing that it would help citizens better fit voting into increasingly busy personal schedules while easing ballot box bottlenecks, especially during peak times before and after typical work hours.
Early voting is already available in 32 states. Under the bill it would begin in Massachusetts in the 2016 elections.
"We've been behind the curve, but this marks a significant move toward Massachusetts becoming a voting rights leader," Gavi Wolfe of the Massachusetts ACLU said in a written statement.
Gov. Deval Patrick has said he "loves the idea" of early voting.
Activists said online registration will encourage more people to register while also reducing processing time, cutting costs and limiting errors.
The system would search the Registry of Motor Vehicles database for a driver's license and other identifying information and match it to an electronic form filled out by the voter. Newly registered voters would be required to show proof of residence the first time they vote.
Twenty-three states have online voter registration.
Backers of the bill have touted other element of the legislation including postelection audits to help ensure the integrity of the voting process. They said 26 other states already perform the audits and California has conducted audits for more than 30 years.
The advocates didn't get everything they wanted, including a provision that would have allowed voters to register on Election Day. The bill does create a task force to study other voting issues, however, including whether to enact Election Day registration.
The Senate version of the bill would have allowed Election Day registration, something Republicans opposed saying it could threaten the integrity of the ballot. That version also included the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds while the House bill didn't.
Advocates said the compromise bill was still a major step forward in bringing the state's voting laws into the digital world and encouraging more citizens to register and cast ballots.
"We are thrilled," Executive Director of Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said. "We have been fighting for many of these reforms for a decade or more."
The bill heads back to the House and Senate for final passage.
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