With formal legislative sessions set to end in just days, local lawmakers are leading an 11th-hour effort to revive a bill, stalled in the state Senate’s Ways and Means Committee since February, that could give thousands of Massachusetts citizens the chance to register and vote on Election Day.
But time is running out for the measure. In order for the change to have the greatest possible effect, voting rights advocates say, the bill should be implemented before the 2008 presidential election — meaning it must pass the state Senate before the current legislative session ends this month.
As of press time, the bill had yet to see a vote on the floor, despite passing through committee last week.
“We’re trying to beat the clock down here,” said state Rep. Gloria Fox, who sponsored the accompanying House bill on the matter. “There has been some hold-up on the Senate side on Election Day registration.”
Senate bill no. 2807, a scaled-back version of the original bill sponsored by Fox in the House and state Sen. Cynthia Creem in the Senate, would require all voting districts in the state to offer at least one location at which voters who are not registered to vote — or who have moved to a new district since their last registration — could cast their ballots on Election Day.
The original bill sought to allow hopeful voters to register at any ballot location in the state. But critics argue that such a move would place a financial burden on many municipalities.
Fox said the change “gives some relief to cities and towns that can’t afford to get it up and running between now and the general election,” and is a compromise that the bill’s proponents were ultimately willing to make.
“It’s kind of controversial in that it sort of breaks up a very good bill,” she said. “But the whole issue around cost is one that has been really holding things up on the Senate side, and I believe that the speaker [of the House, Salvatore F. DiMasi] has a problem as well with the cost of it.”
On the Senate floor on Tuesday, state Sen. Bruce Tarr moved to postpone a vote on the bill, the second such motion since the bill passed committee last week, to allow state auditors to assess whether sufficient funding exists to support the measure. Tarr said that the current bill’s mandate on cities and towns violates a provision in Massachusetts General Law that requires such mandates to be accompanied by sufficient funding.
State Sen. Edward M. Augustus Jr., the chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws and one of the bill’s chief proponents, argued that a combination of money in the state budget and federal aid would sufficiently cover the scaled-back bill’s costs. Augustus said he rejects “any suggestion that we can’t afford to have more people vote, even though we know we have a process that has worked in other states and could work in this state.”
If the measure passes in time, its impact on presidential voting could be significant, according to a recent report by the research and advocacy organization Demos. The New York-based group’s report estimates that the state would see an increase of about 5 percent in overall voter participation and larger boosts in participation among African Americans, Hispanics and young people — three demographics that have turned out in high numbers throughout the primary season.
It is also expected to help prospective voters in low-income communities, where underdeveloped civic awareness infrastructures and financial stresses prevent many citizens from registering prior to Election Day.
“Sometimes, what happens is that people don’t have the time to register,” said state Rep. Willie Mae Allen, who supported the bill in the House. For citizens facing the daily pressures of low-income jobs and difficult lifestyles, she said, registering to vote may not be a top priority. As a result, they are often left out of the political process.
“These people should be given the right to vote,” she said.
Allen is a member of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, which reported the bill favorably and referred it to the Ways and Means Committee in February.
“I joined that committee primarily because of the low voter turnout we get in our community,” Allen said, adding that in past elections, “many more people would have voted had there been Election Day registration.”
Avi Green, director of the statewide voting advocacy organization MassVOTE, echoed Allen’s sentiments, estimating that the state would have seen 200,000 more votes in the 2004 presidential election had the measure been in place.
“It would be a huge step forward,” he said.
Green said the bill has a special significance to minority and low-income populations, two demographics that have historically turned out in low numbers.
“We know that the voting rates in communities of color have been steadily going up in Boston and other parts of the state, but they still haven’t caught up,” Green said.
“I think that’s why you’ve had a lot of leadership from representatives of color on this bill,” he added, citing Fox, Allen and state Rep. Marie St. Fleur as examples. “They’ve really been important leaders on this.”
Green said the problem stems, in part, from a historical legacy of race-based voting restrictions aimed at keeping minority groups away from the ballot box.
“At one point, registration was about exclusion: ‘Let’s make sure that it’s only white people who vote,’ or ‘Let’s make sure that it’s only men,’” he said. “Now, that’s changed.”
The bill’s future has been in question for some time, and it appeared to be stalled until last week’s changes brought it out of committee in the first concrete action related to the measure since the spring. The revised draft was set to go to a vote on July 17, but was tabled by a motion from Senate Republicans, and the vote was postponed.
A representative from the office of state Sen. Edward M. Augustus Jr., chair of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, said no more procedural snags were expected and that the measure would likely go to a vote this week. With Tuesday’s new motion to table the bill now pending, however, it is unclear whether it will see action before the end of the month.
“We’re hoping and praying that it comes up before we recess,” Allen said.
Senate Bill No. 2514 would negate the state’s current voter registration deadline of 21 days before any given election. Instead, it would permit hopeful voters to register on Election Day — or re-register, if they have moved since their last registration — at public voting sites. More »
The New York-based research and advocacy organization's full March 2008 report on what implementing Election Day voter registration could mean for turnout and participation in the Commonwealth is available here. NOTE: The report is in PDF format, and Adobe Reader is required to read it. You can download the latest version here.
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