Election law conference gets underway with private talks

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 19, 2014….Negotiations between the House and Senate began in earnest on Wednesday over a package of election law reforms that could bring early voting and same-day voter registration to Massachusetts before the next presidential election.

A six-member conference committee charged with seeking compromise between the branches on competing bills met for the first time, beginning a back-and-forth nearly two months after the committee was formed to resolve the disagreements. Led by Sen. Barry Finegold and Rep. James Murphy, the co-chairs of the Election Laws Committees, the committee voted 3-2 to close their deliberations to the public, a common but not required step.

The two Republicans on the panel – Sen. Robert Hedlund and Rep. Shawn Dooley – voted against closing the meetings to the public.

Before shutting the doors, Murphy disseminated a chart to the panel outlining areas of agreement and disagreement between the House and Senate.

Both bills approved by their respective chambers include enhanced training for local clerks, online voter registration, online registration search tools and a principle commitment to early voting.

While the House bill calls for early voting to take place only in presidential election years, the Senate bill calls for early voting in all state elections every two years.

The Senate bill, unlike the House bill, also allows for election-day voter registration.

Teenagers from Lowell waited outside the fourth floor conference hoping that a provision in the Senate bill authorizing a local referendum that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in city elections will be included in a final legislation.

While the conferees met, Common Cause Massachusetts and Mass Vote hosted an information session two floors down in the State House with David Becker, of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Sandi Wesolowski, the Franklin Wisconsin city clerk.

Becker said election-day registration in other states has improved civic participation, and discussed a growing partnership between states participating with the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) that helps match election registration records with motor vehicle licenses, death registries and other databases to reach voters and maintain timely updated public records.

Seven states, including Virginia, currently participate in ERIC and have had success finding and registering unenrolled voters or updating voter records as they move within or to other ERIC states, cutting down on costs and workloads for clerks that can spike around major elections.

Becker said he has had conversations with Secretary of State William Galvin’s office about ERIC and hoped while in Boston to share information about the program with lawmakers. “Massachusetts would be a great state for us to do this in,” Becker said.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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