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Election Day registration bill stalled in state Senate

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In the midst of an election season that looks to attract record voter turnout, state legislators are considering a new measure that would allow thousands of previously unregistered citizens to cast their ballots on Election Day.

Senate Bill No. 2514, now awaiting action by the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, 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.

“Every year, some Massachusetts citizens will show up at the polls only to discover that their name is not on the list,” said Avi Green, director of the in-state voting rights organization MassVOTE. “Perhaps they moved and didn’t know that they needed to re-register … or they simply didn’t know that their registration was required 21 days before Election Day. They try to register two weeks out, or 10 days out, and they can’t.”

The bill seeks to eliminate such problems by allowing citizens to deal with registration issues on the same day that they vote, provided they can produce proper identification information in compliance with the state’s existing registration standards.

A recent report by the research and advocacy organization Demos suggests that the measure’s impact could be significant, estimating that the state would see an increase of about 5 percent in overall voter participation and larger boosts in participation among young people and African Americans — two demographics that have turned out in record numbers throughout the primary season.

But to be implemented for the upcoming presidential election, the bill — sponsored by state Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, and supported by a variety of local organizations — will need to pass before the state’s formal legislative sessions end on July 31.

Michael Avitzur, Creem’s legislative counsel, declined comment on the likelihood that the bill will be implemented in time for the presidential election, but he said Creem would like to see it addressed soon.

“The session is scheduled to end at the end of July, and we’re hopeful that we can advance the bill for a vote on the floor before then,” Avitzur said.

“This is both a very important presidential election year and one that’s already generated a huge amount of excitement, so it’s especially important to allow as many qualified voters as possible to vote and be heard,” he said.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, a program director at Demos, said quick passage of the measure would capitalize on the excitement generated by the 2008 campaign and help create a “culture of voter participation” in Massachusetts.

Failure to pass it, on the other hand, could discourage a new generation of potential voters, he warned.

“If somebody can’t vote — if somebody shows up to vote and they’re turned away — the less likely they are to go to vote a second time,” Comstock-Gay said. “This year, with so much interest, you don’t want to turn people away. This is a year where people are just chomping at the bit to get in.”

Green echoed that sentiment.