Legislative panel weighs state election reforms | Election

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BOSTON — Election reform groups are urging lawmakers to authorize same-day voter registration as part of an overhaul Massachusetts’ election laws.

On Thursday, a six-member legislative committee co-chaired by Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover began closed-door talks to work out differences between House and Senate versions of a bill that calls for overhauling voting laws to make mail and early balloting permanent for federal, state and local elections.

Before the proposed VOTES Act lands on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk for review, the committee members must agree on a final version and same-day voter registration is the biggest sticking point. The Senate version includes same-day registration, but the House version doesn’t.

As legislative committee deliberates, voting rights advocates are pressuring the panel to include same-day registration.

The Election Modernization Coalition — a group which includes Common Cause Massachusetts, MassVOTE and ACLU Massachusetts — argues that Election Day registration will increase voter turnout, especially in communities of color.

“We know that same day registration is a game changer,” said Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “There’s a sense of urgency to get that and these other voting reforms approved before the next election.”

House leaders who rejected the plan to include same-day registration cited concerns that the changes would be an unfunded mandate on local election clerks.

They want to study the potential costs and complications of allowing people to register to vote during elections, before moving ahead with the changes.

Foster said a proposed compromise, which has been given a tentative nod by the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association, would authorize same day registration on Election Day, but not during early voting periods preceding the election.

“We’re willing to accept that compromise,” he said. “We think it would be fair and still address a large barrier to voting.”

Under current law, Massachusetts voters must register at least 20 days before an election, but good government groups say the cutoff disenfranchises voters.

In 2018, Massachusetts’ highest court upheld the state’s cutoff deadline following a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin, the state’s top election official, is among those who support allowing same-day registration, permanent mail voting and other reforms.

At least 20 states, including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, allow same-day voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Supporters point to a recent University of Massachusetts Amherst poll showing more than 65% of Massachusetts residents support same-day registration, among other changes.

Massachusetts was one of dozens of states that temporarily changed its laws to expand mail-in voting options and avoid crowding at the polls as the COVID-19 pandemic raged.

Those emergency laws expired in December but lawmakers say the policies have expanded voter access and participation, and should become permanent.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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