Front Page News, Improving Elections

Voting Reforms Set to Lapse Next Week

House Debate On Broader Bill Expected In 2022

DEC. 8, 2021…..With time running out on temporary pandemic measures such voting by mail and expanded early voting, election reform advocates said Wednesday they don’t know whether the Legislature might consider another extension before next Wednesday, or allow the voting options to lapse while the House considers action on a broader bill.

“We are mindful of the deadline next week. We’re excited if the Legislature chooses to address it in the next few days, but I think more importantly to us at this point, we’re hopeful that the House can take up a debate on the VOTES Act in the weeks or months ahead,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

Foster helped lead an online briefing for members and staff on behalf of the Election Modernization Coalition on the VOTES Act, a comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in October that would permanently authorize voting by mail and expanded early voting, and also allow for voters to register and vote on the same day during the early voting period before elections and on election day itself.

The House has voted for pieces of the VOTES Act in the past but so far has not taken up the comprehensive bill that passed the Senate, and Speaker Ron Mariano hasn’t outlined the House’s plans to address the situation. The VOTES Act would also take steps to facilitate voting for eligible inmates in state jails, and require Massachusetts to join the Electronic Registration Information Center, a nonprofit that works with states to improve the accuracy of voter rolls.

With the Legislature currently meeting in only informal sessions, a debate in the House on the VOTES Act won’t happen until January at the earliest, but a temporary extension of voting reforms first put in place last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is due to expire on Dec. 15.

Rep. John Lawn, a sponsor of the VOTES Act and a former chair of the Committee on Election Laws, said the bill offers a “road map for a 21st century democracy in Massachusetts.”

“After those elections last fall, we knew that Massachusetts had work to do in order to make our elections more secure, more accessible, and more equitable,” Lawn said.

Lawn said Wednesday’s briefing was intended to make sure House members and staff interested in learning more about the bill had that opportunity. Thanking Elections Laws Committee Chairman Dan Ryan, who was not on the call, Lawn said, “We’re hopeful that today’s conversation will make your work easier in the House as it considers legislation to make our democracy stronger.”

Lawn left the call before a question-and-answer session, and none of the advocates or other legislators on the video conference offered any explanation for why the House has not yet acted on the bill, or if another temporary extension might be under consideration.

“I do know that we continue to have really good conversation with folks in leadership who support many of the provision in the VOTES Act,” Foster said.

The House and Senate in June allowed the temporary pandemic voting options to expire, but in July revived them with an extension through the middle of December. Should these rules be allowed to lapse again, it’s possible that a special general election to fill a vacant Senate seat in January in Boston, Revere, Cambridge and Winthrop will be held without an expanded early voting window or the option to vote by mail.

Mariano’s office would not say whether a temporary extension was under consideration, and Senate President Karen Spilka’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment, though Mariano recently told the News Service, “That’s something that can wait ’til well into next year before it has any impact.”

“So we’ll find a vehicle. And we’ve already voted on it, people know where they are on this, so now it’s a question logistically how to get it into the Senate,” Mariano said.

The House has gone on record in support of expanding early voting and permanently authorizing no-excuse voting by mail, but the House rejected a same-day voter registration amendment last year as part of a broader COVID-19 relief bill.

Before the 16-139 vote, Lawn argued that the timing was not right to consider same-day registration when the Legislature was hoping to reduce lines at the polls and administrative burdens on shorthanded clerks’ offices.

Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, said Wednesday same-day registration would be the “most impactful” policy the state could adopt to improve equity in elections.

Jen Benson, the president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, said the business community is also in support because greater civic engagement helps employers recruit workers to Massachusetts and “creates a healthier environment for these workers.”

It’s also popular with the public, according to advocates.

In addition to the more than 80 House lawmakers who have co-sponsored the bill, a recent UMass Amherst poll found that 65 percent of Massachusetts residents either strongly or somewhat support the idea, compared with 28 percent in opposition.

Jesse Rhodes, a political science professor and associate director of the UMass Amherst poll, said research has shown same-day registration to be an effective tool in increasing voter turnout and participation by younger voters and voters in marginalized communities.

Rhodes said at least 20 states and the District of Columbia already use same-day registration, including Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

“Same-day registration is a reform that tends to increase both the level and diversity of voter turnout in elections, and the idea is popular in the state,” Rhodes said.