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Legislators back state changes in voting

Two would ease rules, a third tighten them

Changes should be made in the way people vote in Massachusetts, three area lawmakers agree. Each, however, is backing a different proposal.

State Senator Scott Brown, a Wrentham Republican, is leading the charge at the State House for a bill that would require people to show identification before voting.

Brown said elections are run well in the state, but there are still some irregularities, and he wanted to ''eliminate any fraud at the polling places."

Opponents of the bill include the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, which said the bill would discourage people from voting.

''Essentially, we believe in breaking down barriers, not building them," said Lynn Cohen, the league's executive vice president. ''Voting is a right, an essential right. People shouldn't have to continually prove who they are."

Cohen said voter fraud is not a problem in the state, and Brown's bill would hit immigrant voters particularly hard.

''People from other cultures have different attitudes toward government than we do, and I can see it as really intimidating," she said.

Brown admitted that similar proposals have failed in the past, but he said he thinks people are more focused on voting issues now because of last year's presidential election, when there were allegations of double voting in some states and other irregularities.

State Senator Cynthia Creem, a Democrat of Newton, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would make it easier to vote by allowing registration on Election Day.

Currently, Massachusetts voters must register at least 20 days before an election to be eligible to participate.

Six states allow same-day registration, said Creem, and all six have watched voter participation climb since making the change.

''There are people who don't think about it until the last minute," she said, adding that young people in particular don't always realize there is a deadline. ''I think it's so important to encourage people to vote."

The League of Women Voters supports Creem's bill, Cohen said.

But Tim O'Brien, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said he is worried that same-day registration would make it difficult to check on a questionable voter.

''My concern with Creem's bill is that we could have people who . . . don't meet the qualifications here to vote in Massachusetts casting a ballot and determining the winner on Election Day," said O'Brien. ''You're making it easier for fraud and other possible voter irregularities to take place."

State Senator Edward Augustus, a Worcester Democrat who also represents Shrewsbury and Upton, is chairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws. He has also spoken out in favor of a constitutional amendment proposed by the league that would allow voting by mail for anyone who wants it.

Cohen said the bill is needed because ''today so many people are so busy, for a whole variety of reasons."

People are at home caring for an elderly relative or children, or they work out of town from early in the morning until late at night, she said. Currently, absentee voting is allowed in Massachusetts only if a voter will be out of town, is physically unable to get to the polls, or has a religious reason for not voting on the scheduled day, said Cohen.

Currently, 26 states allow absentee voting without conditions, according to the league.

To pass, a constitutional amendment must be approved by two consecutive constitutional conventions, made up of both the state Senate and House, and then be approved in a statewide referendum by a majority of voters.

Although both major parties have encouraged voters to use absentee ballots in recent years, O'Brien questioned how it might change the dynamics of an election to have a large number of people voting by mail. In many races, people who vote too far in advance may miss out on a last-minute flurry of campaigning and debate, he said.

Some town clerks have also expressed concern about the logistics of processing a mountain of mailed ballots.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or by e-mail at lkocian@globe.com.

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