By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Early voting would be legal in Massachusetts starting in 2016 for all biennial state elections and primaries under a bill Senate Democrats plan to bring to the floor for a vote Thursday.
Supporters say the changes would modernize the state's election system and remove impediments that can discourage some from voting.
Some city and town clerks, however, worry about the practical implications and costs of implementing early voting, which will require more hours and staffing.
The bill would require the secretary of state to create an online voter registration system and maintain an online tool through which voters can check their registration status and polling place.
The House in November approved a bill that authorizes an early-voting system, but limits it to presidential elections and primaries. The Senate bill also authorizes pre-registration for those 16 and 17, a change the House did not include in its bill but which is supported by election-reform advocates to increase participation among younger voters.
"I think obviously presidential elections are important, but who we elect for governor and other offices are important as well and we're trying to make it more accessible for people to vote," said Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and co-chair of the Committee on Election Laws.
If passed by both branches and signed by the governor, Massachusetts would join 19 other states with online voter registration and 32 states with early voting.
"We're very pleased. I think it's a strong bill and will be moving elections forward and getting elections in line with what other states do to involve more voters in the election process. Massachusetts needs to be a leader in providing efficient and participatory elections and our laws are behind where they need to be," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
Wilmot said her organization will be supporting two amendments to the bill that, if passed, could make the bill "one of the best voting reforms in the country." The amendments include random audits in a small percentage of precincts to double-check the accuracy of voting machines and procedures as well as same-day voter registration, which has been passed in 13 states and used effectively in Maine and New Hampshire for many cycles.
The Senate passed an election-day voter registration bill in 2008, according to Wilmot.
Finegold said he would be open to both changes if the Senate members coalesce around either idea, suggesting he knows people who have taken advantage of same-day registration in New Hampshire and sees "a lot of good reason" to move in that direction in Massachusetts.
With plans to debate and vote on the bill Thursday, the Senate on Tuesday adopted an order setting a deadline of 2 p.m. on Wednesday for amendments to be filed with the Senate clerk.
Bill Campbell, the city clerk in Woburn and past president of the Massachusetts City Clerks Association, said he hadn't yet read the Senate bill, but had general concerns with the concepts of early voting and pre-registering youth before they turn 18.
Campbell said teenagers can turn out to be a transient population, and simply pre-registering them in one community could create problems when they do turn 18 if they have moved, but expect to vote. "I think it's a lot of work for no real gain," he said.
The Woburn clerk, who was the 2010 Republican nominee for secretary of state, also said handling early voting in the clerk's office or another location could draw resources away from providing residents with other city services.
"We hear about early voting in other parts of the country, but they operate by county. We operate by municipality," Campbell said. "I don't see the big burden currently. If we could make any change, it should be no-excuse absentee voting. That's extra work, but it could be more easily managed. I know the Legislature seems to be in love with these ideas, but they don't, as a practical matter, have a good opportunity to improve elections unless they want to make wholesale changes to the way we vote."
The Ways and Means Committee said the cost of the bill for fiscal 2014 would be covered through existing budget authorizations, but when fully implemented in 2016 early voting could cost $3 million to $6 million per election cycle.
"The upside of giving people the opportunity to vote outweighs the cost," Finegold said.
The bill would also remove the requirement that a voter be placed on the inactive list if they don't return an annual census form, instead basing a voter's active status on their voting history. Under the proposal, a voter would be placed on the inactive list after not voting in two consecutive federal elections.
Early voting would begin 10 business days before a general election or primary and end at the close of business two days before the election. Clerks would be required to keep an early voting poll open at least 10 hours on the Saturday and Sunday before the election.
A task force would also be appointed to review early voting, including the cost, administrative requirements, impact on wait times at polling locations, and the feasibility of adding additional early voting sites and hours.
While it remains unclear how this bill would impact a separate proposal moving through the longer legislative and referendum process to amend the state Constitution to allow for early voting, Finegold said there's a possibility that changing the Constitution would no longer be necessary.
"That's still to be determined, but we're hopeful we won't have to move forward with that," he said.