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Senate unanimously backs automatic voter registration

Cindy FriedmanFriedman

The state Senate unanimously passed legislation Thursday, July 12, that would automatically register thousands of new voters when they get their driver’s licenses or health insurance through the state, moving closer to what advocates say could be one of the farthest-reaching programs of its kind in the country.

Sen. Cindy Friedman, Democrat of Arlington, joined her colleagues in voting to pass H. 4671

If the bill is signed into law, Massachusetts would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia to pass or implement automatic voter-registration measures, including three that have done so this year.

Under the bill, which has also passed the House, eligible residents who interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles or the MassHealth program would have to opt out if they don’t want to join the voter rolls, rather than opt in.

The bill would also allow the secretary of state to reach agreements with state agencies to automatically register voters if they meet certain criteria, potentially further expanding the net the state can cast to reach eligible residents. 

 “Nearly 700,000 residents are eligible to vote in Massachusetts, yet persistent barriers and confusion about the registration process make it more difficult for people to register to vote,” Friedman said in a July 13 news release. “We should be making it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, not harder. This bill will ensure that eligible voters have fair and equal access to our state election process, encourage greater participation in the political process, increase voter turnout and ultimately strengthen our democracy.”

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, referencing a law Maryland passed in April that also includes local social-services departments, was quoted in a Boston Globe report: “If it isn’t the strongest, it’s the second-strongest bill in the country. One of the next steps, once we get this implemented, is to look at: Where are we missing voters, and what agencies do they interact with?”

Secretary of State William F. Galvin told the Globe that the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which administers benefits like food stamps, could be another agency to include in the plan. The bill requires any eligible department to verify whether a person is a U.S. citizen and show it can “materially increase” the pool of registered voters.

Governor Charlie Baker told the Globe on Friday that he believes the state can install automatic voter registration with a “fairly high degree of integrity” at its Registry of Motor Vehicles. But the Republican stopped short of endorsing legislation.

The legislation also bolsters voter-data security. It updates the requirements for transmission of voter registration affidavits and requires the Secretary of State to promulgate regulations to ensure registration is done through electronic transmission, with data security protocols and integration with the online portals.

The legislation increases penalties associated with voter fraud. It orders that whoever knowingly provides false information in connection with automatic voter registration shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for up to 5 years or both.

This news summary was published Sunday, July 15, 2018.

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