Politics

Boston City Council backs vote-by-mail, same-day registration for city elections

The two home rule petitions will need approval from state lawmakers to take hold.

Scott Eisen
Scott Eisen / Bloomberg

Boston city councilors on Wednesday approved two home rule petitions that, if supported by state lawmakers, will allow eligible voters to register on Election Day and continue early voting and vote-by-mail options for city elections.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who sponsored both proposals, has said the measures would help remove barriers for residents who have been historically disenfranchised. Arroyo filed both in partnership with the NAACP Boston branch, the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, and the city’s Election Department in April.

Councilors unanimously supported the petition to make permanent the popular early voting and vote-by-mail options voters used during last year’s elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The second petition, which would allow voters to register and vote on the same day, passed 11-1, with Councilor Frank Baker voting in opposition.

“There’s 20 states that already do this,” Arroyo said, regarding the same-day registration measure. “We are not one of them, though we should be as the data shows that this really increases voter participation and voter engagement.”

A policy brief published by researchers at UMass Amherst and the think tank Demos last month found that states with same-day voter registration laws typically see higher turnout among Black and Latinx voters than those that do not.

States with a law on the books see on average between 2 and 17 percent higher turnout among Black voters, while Latinx voter turnout is on average 0.1 to 17.5 percent higher.

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“Although we cannot estimate a precise causal effect of implementation of SDR (same day registration), these findings suggest that SDR is a critical reform that should be implemented in every state,” Jesse Rhodes, a political science professor at UMass, and Laura Williamson, senior policy analyst at Demos, wrote in the brief.

The voter registration home rule petition approved by the council allows voters to register and vote on the day of an election. Notably, that does not provide eligible voters the ability to register and vote on the same day during an early voting period — a distinction informed by input from election officials.

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“If you have early voting and mail-in ballots and so on and so forth and a person is registering, that’s a lot for (election workers) to handle,” said Councilor Lydia Edwards, chair of the Committee on Government Operations. “So they actually think they could handle and believe it makes more sense for it to be on Election Day.”

According to the home rule petition, voters registering on Election Day must sign a written affidavit confirming they are eligible to vote and must provide a valid photo ID or other documentation that displays their current address.

“It would be exactly the same as if they went to the RMV right now or went online to sign on,” Arroyo said.

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The measure also explicitly prohibits registered voters from re-registering for the sole purpose of changing party affiliation.

Under the other home rule petition, any registered voter would be able to vote by mail or vote early in person with no specific reason required to do so.

While the two petitions are not yet law, state lawmakers appear to have an appetite for voting reform.

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Legislature, as part of its $261.6 million supplemental budget for the 2021 fiscal year, opted to allow voting early by mail to continue through Dec. 15, extending the practice since its was first put in place due to the coronavirus health crisis last year.

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“Passage of the Supplemental Budget today with provisions to extend mail-in and early voting options sends a strong message that both the Senate and the House are committed to ensuring that all voices are heard in our democracy. This is particularly critical in light of recent laws passed by many states to restrict voter access,” Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem, a Newton Democrat, said in a statement. “In addition, today’s action providing for a temporary extension of these provisions, provides the Legislature with the opportunity to take up more comprehensive voting reforms later this session, and I look forward to that debate.”

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