GOP Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker today signed a bill allowing for automatic voter registration. Massachusetts is the sixth state to enact automatic voter registration (AVR) in the 2017-18 legislative season — a remarkable development when so many states are rolling back voting rights through voter ID laws, voter purges, and reducing early voting.
The other states to pass AVR this session are Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington. They joined seven other states and Washington, D.C., which have also adopted AVR since 2015. Massachusetts’s AVR program is expected to be in place in time for the 2020 election.
After well over a year of advocacy and legislative drafting, the final bill came together over the summer. The Massachusetts House passed an AVR bill 131-20 in late June, and the Senate unanimously passed its AVR bill July 12. Then the two pieces of legislation had to be reconciled before being signed by the governor.
“Voting is a fundamental right for all citizens in a democracy, and we ought to make it as straightforward as possible," Senate Sponsor Cynthia Creem said in a statement.
Under the Massachusetts law, any adult citizen who completes a transaction at the Registry of Motor Vehicles or signs up for MassHealth would be automatically registered to vote. People could still choose to opt out, but if they do not, the information they provide is used to sign them up to vote.
According to Common Cause and other civic groups in the state, AVR could add another 680,000 eligible voters to the state’s registration rolls.
Other states have seen a surge in registration through AVR. Between April 23 of this year, when California’s AVR law went into effect, and June 30, there were 259,000 new voter registrations at motor vehicle offices, according to California’s Secretary of State. That is about 5,300 new voter registrations each working day.
A notable feature of the Massachusetts law is that it expands opportunity for AVR beyond just motor vehicle offices. Citizens can also register when they visit MassHealth. This is a growing — and welcome — trend. All the bills passed this legislative season allow for registration in more facilities than just motor vehicle offices (New Jersey's allows for additional agencies to be designated without naming the specific agencies).
Much of the initial momentum for passage of the Massachusetts bill began two years ago when the Brennan Center and Common Cause organized a conference on AVR at Suffolk University. Advocates, election officials, policymakers, and academics discussed the policy implications of AVR and its benefits.
With the tireless efforts of civic groups and legislative supporters — including Sen. Creem and the late Rep. Peter Kocot, who passed away earlier this year — the bill moved through the Legislature. It received crucial support from Secretary of State Bill Galvin in March, and Gov. Baker added his signature today.
It is a testament to the power of commonsense reform that AVR is gaining traction in so many states. Next year, perhaps even more states will join the roster of those who understand that registering to vote is a right, not a privilege, and should be as convenient as possible.
(Photo: Sam Berube, Office of the Governor)