Mass. passes early voting law

Massachusetts residents would be able to cast ballots up to 10 days before an election and register to vote online and on Election Day under a bill overwhelmingly approved this week by the Senate.

The bill, which passed 37-1 Thursday, would allow early voting in all state and federal elections and primaries. Early voting would begin 10 business days before an election and end two days before Election Day. The House of Representatives last year approved an early voting bill that would allow voters to cast ballots up to two weeks before a presidential election. A joint House and Senate conference committee will have to iron out the differences between the two bills and a final version sent to both chambers for approval.

Both bills would allow early voting to begin with the 2016 elections.

Gov. Deval Patrick has said he “loves the idea” of early voting.

Senate President Therese Murray said Thursday the Senate bill will “modernize the state’s election system” and bring Massachusetts in line with other states that have adopted early voting.

More than 30 other states allow some form of early voting, and more than a dozen offer online registration.

“This bill takes a number of steps toward the goal of making voting as simple and as streamlined as possible,” said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, who was Senate chair of the Election Laws Committee from 1991 to 1993, when the state adopted its ‘Motor Voter’ registration.

The Senate’s version of election reform includes a Rosenberg initiative that allows a voter of a party that doesn’t nominate a candidate and are listed as a member of a “political designation” to cast ballots in primary elections as unenrolled voters.

Two Rosenberg amendments were incorporated into the bill — one requiring the state to develop a “fiscal impact statement” to provide voters with added information on statewide ballot questions, and another to expand the mandate for a seven-member Election Laws Task Force to examine voter fraud, develop strategies for reducing lines and congestion at the polls, and explore ways to incorporate technology, such as high-speed electronic scanners, to improve voter ballot access.

“I’m all for it,” said Montague Town Clerk Debra Bourbeau. “Anything to get people out to vote.”

But since her office is already fairly lenient with allowing people to vote by absentee ballot, she questioned the need for a separate early ballot, especially if there’s a requirement that the 10-day early voting period includes weekend or evening hours when all town halls would have to be open.

Rosenberg said that implementation details have yet to be worked out and there are ways to differentiate requirements for large and small communities, especially if clerks make their concerns known in the months ahead.

Greenfield Town Clerk Maureen Winseck, who is retiring after 25 years, said she, like Bourbeau, has some concerns about the potential for voter fraud, and has a lot of reservations about adding to the workload of town clerks.

“I think it’s going to present communities with some very big challenges and make it harder to track voters — who’s voted when. Maybe it will increase voter turnout a little bit, but I don’t think it will be remarkable. I wish we didn’t have to do this to get them out to vote.”

The Senate also rejected a Republican-sponsored amendment that would have required voters to produce identification or sign an affidavit saying they are eligible to vote before casting their ballots.

Republicans argued the measure would help guard against fraud. But Democrats said requiring IDs could cause delays, drives up costs and suppress the vote among the poor, minorities, the elderly and others who might have less access to IDs.

The House had rejected a photo ID amendment in its version of the bill.

Voting advocacy groups have urged the Senate to allow voters to register on Election Day, arguing that on average, states with Election Day registration have turnout rates that are 10 to 12 percent higher than the national average.

In addition, the Senate bill would place voters on the inactive list only after they haven’t voted in two consecutive federal elections and not responded to a notice. Currently, voters can be placed on the inactive list for not filling out an annual town census.

The bill also would allow preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds, give 17-year-olds in Lowell the opportunity to vote in municipal elections if voters there approve the proposal, end the requirement of a check-out desk at polling places and require municipal election officials to attend annual training sessions.

The House version didn’t include preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds.

Some lawmakers debate whether the best way to legalize early voting is by a new law or a constitutional amendment. During a joint constitutional convention last October, House and Senate members gave initial approval to a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would allow voters to cast ballots up to 10 days before an election.

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