PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire lawmakers expressed support Friday for voting reform legislation that could lead to new early voting provisions and online and same-day voter registration.
The Senate on Thursday passed a comprehensive bill by an overwhelming 37-1 margin, and the House had passed its own reform legislation in November. A conference committee will be required to work out a final bill for consideration.
Local lawmakers did have one general concern: the potential effects of online -- particularly same-day -- voter registration on municipal clerk offices.
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he's heard from clerks in small towns, who expressed concerns about their lack of staff and computer resources, including in some cases, the lack of broadband service. "In most of these towns, the town clerk is the entire clerk's staff," he said.
"I still think you will need certain deadlines, even online," Pignatelli said.
If same-day online voter registration is approved, he and other lawmakers said, it will be incumbent on the secretary of state's office to ensure there is a secure system in place to facilitate the process.
"I think there is a lot to like in both bills," said Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, who said he has long supported same-day registration and sees it as "a proven strategy for expanding access to voting."
Downing said he's "excited to see online registration and in general early voting," and believes the House-Senate conference on the two bills shouldn't drag on.
"I actually really like the Senate bill," said Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, referring to the additional reform provisions beyond the House bill. "The House bill is good. The Senate took a few more steps."
Her only caution, she said, is that "the clerks have to have the tools they need" to implement the online aspects.
"What we are not doing," she said, "is going in the opposite direction, like some other states, and trying to keep more people from voting."
"The clerks have to be involved," said Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, who said the online aspects of the bills will "have a huge impact on town and city clerks, no matter how you look at it."
She said provisions calling for a task force to study and review online and early voting are expected to include participation by clerks, adding, "it should not only be the big-city clerks."
Overall, Cariddi said there are a number of good things in the bills. "I only hope more people will get out there and take advantage of it [to vote]."
In a release following passage of the Senate bill, Downing listed its provisions, including:
n Authorizing early voting for state and federal elections and primaries, allowing residents to register to vote on Election Day and creating an online voter registration system.
n Early voting to begin 10 business days before the election and end two days before the election. The first early voting period would occur in 2016.
n Allows 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote.
n Requires municipal election officials to attend annual training given by the secretary of state regarding applicable state and federal election laws.
n The secretary of state would create a secure online portal to allow voters to check their voter registration status and polling place.
n Establishes an elections task force to review early voting and expanding technology, including costs, administrative requirements and reductions in wait times on Election Day; and the feasibility of additional early voting sites and hours, voter turnout, Election Day mobile alerts and online voting.
n Places voters on the inactive list only after not voting in two consecutive federal elections and not responding to a notice from the city or town. Under current law, a voter can be placed on the inactive list for not filling out an annual census.
Under the legislation, Massachusetts would join the 32 other states and the District of Columbia that allow early voting.
To reach Jim Therrien:
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