By Katie Lannan
Voters in Massachusetts would get 10 more days to register before an election but would not be able to join their peers in other states who are able to register and then cast a ballot on Election Day itself, under compromise legislation filed Wednesday that permanently codifies popular mail-in and expanded early voting options made available during the pandemic.
Ninety days before the state’s Sept. 6 primary, a team of House and Senate negotiators struck a deal on an elections reform package that allows voters to cast their ballots by mail for presidential, state and municipal elections and establishes two weeks of in-person early voting before biennial state elections, with one week of early voting ahead of presidential or state primaries.
Municipalities would be able to opt-out of mail-in voting for local elections not held on the same day as a state or federal election, and could choose to offer in-person early voting for those contests, under the bill.
Sen. Barry Finegold, who chaired the conference committee negotiation with Rep. Michael Moran, said the Senate plans to vote during its Thursday session on accepting the compromise. The House will then need to take a similar vote, and final procedural votes in each branch would send the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.
“I think that this will increase voter participation for years to come, and when more people participate, democracy wins,” Finegold told the News Service.
The accord eschews the Senate-backed policy of allowing new voters to register and then cast their ballot on the same day, a reform the House in its bill instead directed Secretary of State William Galvin to study.
“It’s something that we really do support. It’s just something that the House didn’t support,” Finegold said of same-day registration, adding that he believes the “vast majority of the bill is great.”
Under current law, voters must be registered 20 days before an election in order to participate. The conference committee’s bill (S 2924), like the version the House passed in January, shrinks that blackout period to 10 days.
“Like anything else, the more opportunity that we can get for people to register, the better,” Finegold, an Andover Democrat, said.
Moran, Finegold and the panel’s other two Democrats, Sen. Cindy Creem of Newton and Rep. Dan Ryan of Charlestown, signed off on the deal, while Republican conferees Sen. Ryan Fattman of Sutton and Rep. Shawn Dooley of Norfolk did not.
The conference committee was created in February but didn’t hold its first formal negotiating session until April.
Creem, in a statement, said the Senate offered “multiple compromise approaches” on same-day registration during the talks and that she was disappointed the measure did not make it into the final bill. She said she would “continue to push for its passage and plan[s] to file legislation on the subject going forward.”
Election-reform advocates had called for both branches to include same-day registration language in their bills, saying the policy has potential to increase participation in elections, particularly among young and minority voters. Critics in the House raised concerns about the ability of cities and towns to implement the proposed new registration rules without disruption.
After the House turned back a same-day registration amendment in favor of the study — an analysis that Galvin has said would not be necessary — supporters pitched the conference committee on what they described as a compromise: permitting people to register and vote at the same time on Election Day, but not during the early-voting window.
The Election Modernization Coalition, which includes groups such as Common Cause Massachusetts, MassVOTE and the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the committee’s bill “the largest expansion of voting access in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in years,” and praised it as a step forward.
“Three years ago – prior to the COVID19 pandemic – none of us thought mail-in and expanded early in-person voting would be the reality in Massachusetts,” MassVOTE’s Vanessa Snow said in a statement. “But three years later, after both policies proved immensely popular throughout the pandemic, we are thrilled to see the legislature move one step closer to permanently implementing these reforms. We are disappointed that Election Day Registration will not be included in the final bill, but we will fight tirelessly for this reform in the years ahead, as we know it is one of the most effective tools to increasing voter turnout amongst Black and brown, low income, and immigrant communities.”
Moran did not offer a clear forecast on whether lawmakers will be eager to circle back to debate on registration changes once the dust has settled on implementing permanent mail-in voting and expanded early voting.
“I have no way of predicting what future sessions will do,” the Brighton Democrat said when asked if same-day or Election Day registration would be a priority in subsequent lawmaking terms. “I have no idea what elected officials in those sessions will be supporting.”
Moran told the News Service that the final compromise bill “represents the shared beliefs of both branches when it comes to election reform.” Asked if he still has concerns about the viability of same-day voter registration, he replied, “It’s not about whether I have concerns. The House bill itself was not in the same space as the Senate was on that issue.”
If the Senate does accept the compromise bill on Thursday, Moran said it could hit the House floor as early as next week.
Earlier Wednesday, Galvin called for “urgent action” toward the passage of permanent vote-by-mail options, citing the approaching primary. In the 2020 state primary, according to his office, 47.7 percent of the record 1,706,992 ballots were cast by mail.
Galvin, whose office is directed in the bill to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters before each election, said voters need time to make a plan for how they will vote and to ensure they get a mail-in ballot if they’d like one.
The final bill, according to a Senate summary, also includes jail-based voting reforms aimed at helping ensure that incarcerated people who are eligible to vote are able to do so. It would allow voters with disabilities to request accommodations from the secretary of state’s office, “including an accessible electronic ballot application, ballot, and voter affidavit that can be submitted electronically.”
The bill would also give military and other voters overseas an option to vote through an electronic system approved by the secretary’s office. For several election cycles, Massachusetts has had to move up its state primary date to comply with a federal law that requires ballots be ready for military and overseas voters 45 days before Election Day.
“I want to make it as easy as possible for our service members to participate, and some don’t have the option of printing out a ballot, faxing it back, and I do think this is going to make it easier,” Finegold said.
[Chris Lisinski contributed reporting.]