By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Voters will be able to cast their ballots more than a week before an election starting in 2016 under new early-voting rules recommended by a House-Senate panel that reached a deal late Monday afternoon on broad new election reforms.
The pact would also authorize online voter registration and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, but excludes a Senate-backed provision to allow same-day voter registration at the polls. It also recommends random post-presidential election audits of select precincts to verify the accuracy of vote counts.
"I think it's a great bill and I'm very proud," said Sen. Barry Finegold, co-chairman of the Election Laws Committee and the lead Senate conferee negotiating the final bill. "I think it's going to give more opportunities to the electorate to participate and the fact that we're going to be able to get younger voters to pre-register will be huge. It's a big step in the right direction for more people to participate in the electoral process."
Finegold negotiated the compromise bill (H 4072) with Rep. Jamie Murphy, a Weymouth Democrat and co-chair of the Election Laws Committee. Reps. Michael Moran, D-Brighton, and Shawn Dooley (R-Norfolk) and Sens. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, and Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, also sat on the conference committee.
"It's a bill that the average person will like. It will make it easier for people to vote, to register to vote and we want to encourage young people to vote," Murphy said.
If adopted by the House and Senate, Massachusetts would join at least 32 other states with early voting. The report calls for early voting to start in time for the 2016 presidential election and would allow voters to cast their ballot up to 11 business days before the date of the election.
Murphy said he was not sure when the bill would come up for a vote, but suggested it could happen as soon as Wednesday when the House plans to meet.
While the House originally proposed an early voting system in presidential election years only and the Senate opted for all biennial state elections, the conferees reached a compromise to authorize early voting for every two-year state election cycle, but only in the general election and not for primaries.
"We focused where we thought the highest turnout would be," Finegold said.
Though the conference report does recommend allowing teenagers to pre-register to vote up to two years before they become eligible to cast a ballot, House and Senate lawmakers opted not to include a Senate-backed provision to allow 17-year-olds in Lowell to vote in municipal elections that has been heavily lobbied by the teenagers on Beacon Hill. The proposal would have also had to pass in a city referendum question.
The same-day voter registration provision was tacked on by amendment in the Senate when Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, argued it would increase turnout. The measure, however, drew opposition from city and town clerks across the state that were concerned about the added administrative burden of registering voters as they showed up at the polls to vote.
"It's something we're going to continue to look at and try to study. It's a big piece and I'm still hopeful that at some point in the future the Commonwealth will have same-day voter registration," said Finegold, who is running for treasurer.
Murphy said the conference committee worked closely with the clerks, Secretary of State William Galvin and Common Cause Massachusetts in developing the final bill. "When there are any changes people can get concerned but what we did in the House and Senate bill was we made it workable for the clerks. We heard what their concerns were. I think they'll be very happy with the bill," Murphy said.
The six-member conference committee has been negotiating the election-law reforms since late January after competing versions passed the House and Senate with strong support.
In addition to studying same-day registration, the bill would create an elections task force to look at how reforms in the law succeed at improving voter turnout and reducing the length of lines at polling locations on election day. The task force would also study the state and local costs associated with early voting, incidences of voter fraud, and the potential for expanded use of technology for election-day mobile alerts and online or "e-voting."
The completion of negotiations over election-law reforms comes as major bills passed this session have become bottlenecked in conference committees, two of which began deliberations before the election law conferees.
"I know there's a lot of contention between the House and Senate right now, but Jamie was great to work with and I felt there was a good compromise and we worked in a strong and bipartisan fashion," Finegold said.