For as liberal as its politics is, Massachusetts has been surprisingly conservative in its voting rights laws.
Unlike blood-red states like Utah and Louisiana, the Commonwealth does not allow early voting. Nor does Massachusetts allow residents to vote absentee without a certain excuse. Voters can’t register online. And for anyone who hasn’t registered to vote within 20 days of the election, they are barred from casting a ballot.
But, as many Republican-led states work to roll back voting rights, the Massachusetts Senate moved in the opposite direction on Thursday, passing an omnibus bill that would significantly expand voting rights in the Commonwealth.
The bill, H. 3788, makes a number of changes. It allows for a week of early voting beginning 10 days prior to an election. It creates an online voter registration system and also permits 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote. But perhaps most importantly, it allows Massachusetts residents to register to vote on Election Day.
Academic studies have shown that Election Day voter registration increases turnout anywhere from 7 to 14 percentage points. It’s not difficult to grasp why. Making voting a single-day affair (registering and voting on the same day) rather than a multi-day matter (registering to vote weeks in advance of actually casting a ballot) will help enfranchise thousands of citizens who are too busy or otherwise occupied to pay attention well before Election Day.
The bill passed the Senate by a 37-1 vote. It is very similar — though not identical — to one that passed the Massachusetts House by a 141-10 vote last year. A conference committee will be called to iron out differences between the two bills, but given the overwhelming margins of passage in each chamber and Gov. Deval Patrick’s vociferous support, final passage seems all but assured.