Automatic Voter Registration Bill Clears Mass. House 130-20

A voter in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A voter in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The House voted 130-20 Wednesday to approve an automatic voter registration bill, with supporters saying the reform could eventually lead to 700,000 newly registered voters and increase voter turnout by 5 percent.

Under the bill, officials at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth would explain to members of the public who interact with them that an agency application is also a voter application unless the person declines to be registered, and also inform them that non-citizens are ineligible to vote. Those who don't opt out would have their information submitted for voter registration, under the bill, and local election clerks would be directed to send people cards asking if they want to take their name off the rolls or register with one of the political parties.

"If they do nothing, they will be automatically enrolled as an unenrolled voter," said Rep. John Mahoney, a Worcester Democrat and House chairman of the Election Laws Committee.

"We're thrilled. It was a great vote -- bipartisan vote," Common Cause of Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said. "This bill will make elections more accurate, more secure and more participatory. It involves more people in politics and being able to hold their government accountable, and that's a win for everyone."

The state has $43 million available from the Help America Vote Act of 2006 to finance the program, which Mahoney said would cost around $500,000 to get up and running and $250,000 a year thereafter.

"Less and less people have an opportunity to get to city hall for many reasons," Mahoney said. "You can do a lot of it online and this is just another way to make it simpler and more effective to get people involved in the voting process."

Democrats who voted on the bill (H 4667) were unanimous in their support of the legislation while the Republican caucus was split, with a majority of Republicans voting against the measure. Rep. Geoff Diehl, a U.S. Senate candidate in this election cycle, voted with Minority Leader Brad Jones and the more centrist Republicans in favor of the measure, while Rep. Keiko Orrall, the Republican candidate for treasurer, voted against it.

The bill will now head to the Senate where Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem said she is looking forward to voting for it.

"I'd be surprised if it isn't signed into law in the next month," Rep. Jay Livingstone, a bill supporter, said at a press conference earlier Wednesday.

On a 38-111 vote, the House rejected a proposal by Rep. Kevin Kuros to include the Firearms Records Bureau among the agencies that would register voters. The Uxbridge Republican said people who go through vetting for a firearm license should be granted the convenience of automatic voter registration.

Democrats James Dwyer, of Woburn, Colleen Garry, of Dracut, and Jonathan Zlotnik, of Gardner, and independent Susannah Whipps joined Republicans voting for that measure.

Wilmot noted that the secretary of state -- an elected position held by Brighton Democrat William Galvin -- would have the power to come to similar agreements with other state agencies, such as the firearms bureau, if it would increase the number of registered voters.

"My guess is the percentage of overlap between the registry and gun owners is probably virtually 100 percent," Wilmot told the News Service, while allowing that "ultimately maybe they will be added at some point."

The bill has an effective date of Jan. 1, 2020, ahead of the next presidential election.



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