Massachusetts lawmakers weigh automatic voter registration

A digital voter registration drive outside at Boston City Hall. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts residents could have their voter registration information automatically updated whenever they renew their drivers’ licenses or interact with other state agencies.

A bill working its way through Beacon Hill would help ensure that more of the state’s nearly 700,000 eligible citizens who are not registered to vote are able to cast ballots on Election Day.

“Massachusetts can lead the way toward giving all citizens a voice in their government,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a backer of the bill, which was the subject of a public hearing Thursday.

The bill instructs the state secretary to create a system that automatically updates a voter’s registration information whenever that voter alerts one of several state agencies of a change of address or other changes related to their voter information.


The agencies include the department of housing and community development, the department of revenue, the department of higher education, and all public institutions of higher education. The bill would also allow a voter to waive those updates if they want.

Supporters say that they have 102 co-sponsors, including 80 in the 160-member House and 22 in the 40-member Senate.

Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg tweeted his support for the measure, saying, “680,000 eligible voters in MA aren’t registered. For the sake of our democracy, it’s time for #automaticvoterregistration.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy is also backing the measure, saying the bill would help expand access to the ballot at a time when some in the country are looking for ways to restrict access by pointing to what he described as the virtually nonexistent problem of voter fraud.

“President Trump has emerged as one of the most fervent messengers of these dangerously misleading voter fraud claims,” Kennedy wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

The only concerns raised about the bill publicly have come from municipal clerks, who are worried that changes to registration and voting could be an added financial burden to cities and towns unless lawmakers also approve money to pay for the changes.


Backers of the measure say eight states and the District of Columbia have passed similar measures.

Last year, Oregon became the first state to put an automatic voter registration system into effect.

Gov. Kate Brown said in December that 270,000 Oregonians were registered to vote under the new system. Of those newly registered voters, more than 97,000 of them cast ballots in November, according to Brown.

The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, MASSPIRG, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Boston branch of the NAACP are among the groups backing the effort in Massachusetts.

If approved, the bill would mark another major shift in how Massachusetts residents cast ballots.

Last year, the state created its first-ever early voting period, which proved hugely popular.

More than 1 million registered voters in Massachusetts — or 21 percent of the state’s 4.5 million registered voters — cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential contest before Election Day.

It’s not the only voter registration bill under consideration on Beacon Hill.

Another bill would create a so-called “sticky voter registration” system for registered voters who move within the state.

The bill would require the state secretary to obtain information every three months from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and the U.S. Postal Service on residents who changed their address within the state and use that information to update voter registration rolls.