The state's mostly successful experiment with voting-by-mail during the COVID-19 pandemic would become a permanent option for voters in future elections, but House lawmakers on Thursday passed a major voting access bill that omitted voter registration rule changes sought by advocates and the Senate.
The House voted 124-34 to pass a new version of the VOTES Act that establishes rules for voting-by-mail in all future state and presidential elections and expands early in-person voting opportunities.
Those voting reforms were deployed during the pandemic to try to keep people safe from the virus, and led to record turnout in the 2020 elections, though MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons on Thursday called it "an invitation for fraud" that would make it "easier to cheat."
Assistant Majority Leader Michael Moran said that if signed into law, the House version of the VOTES Act would put Massachusetts "head and shoulders above every other state" in terms of voting access. The Senate passed a similar bill in October, and the two branches must now negotiate a final bill.
"This is another step forward in this commonwealth's commitment to having a world class election system where we engage and bring people and provide them the ability to participate in our elections on so many levels," Moran said.
House leaders resisted a push from inside and outside the State House to allow eligible voters to register and vote on the same day, a practice used in at least 20 other states and the District of Columbia. Critics, including some lawmakers, said the opposition came from a desire to protect incumbents from primary challenges.
The House bill (H 4359) would shrink the registration blackout period from 20 days prior to an election to 10 days, giving eligible voters, including new voters and those who might have moved, more time to register.
After more than two hours of back-and-forth debate, lawmakers voted 93-64 in favor of an amendment that would direct Secretary of State William Galvin, who supports same-day registration, to conduct a comprehensive study — without a deadline — of what it would take for clerks to implement same-day registration and how much it would cost the state and municipalities.
Advocates argued that same-day registration has the potential to increase participation in elections, particularly among young and minority voters. Some Democrats countered with their concerns about the ability of cities and towns to implement the proposed new registration rules without disruption, potentially putting a cloud over the integrity of state elections.
The Massachusetts Town Clerks Association opposed same-day registration as a "nearly impossible" challenge to implement, but came out Thursday in support of an amendment to implement election-day registration, which would limit the practice to one day instead of the entire 10-day early voting window before some elections.
Acknowledging the votes might not be there for same-day registration, Elugardo said election-day registration represented a "solid compromise," and would put the House on good footing as it enters negotiations with the Senate over a final bill. The Senate include the registration reform in its voting bill last October.
Elugardo could not, however, convince her colleagues to buck House leadership and force a vote on her amendment.
"Even if a study happens, we're just back where we are today and we start over," Elugardo said, later adding, "The increases in turnout that we're codifying today have been concentrated in communities that don't include people who are Black, indigenous and other people of color."
In addition to enshrining voting by mail and expanded early voting, the bill would direct correctional facilities to assist eligible incarcerated voters in accessing and casting ballots.
An amendment sponsored by Rep. Liz Miranda passed with overwhelming support by a vote of 153-5 to strengthen jail-based voting by requiring jails and prison to put an official in charge of voter outreach, to report on visiting participation and to provide education on voting rights as part of the release process for inmates.
The House also voted 127-31 to reject a Rep. Peter Durant amendment banning municipalities from requiring proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter a voting location or vote in-person. Durant said some voters might run into problems due to vaccine mandates, but Rep. Ryan called it a "solution in search of a problem."