When it comes to civic engagement, Massachusetts teens could hit the ground running and automatically be registered to vote on their 18th birthday under legislation approved yesterday by a Beacon Hill committee. 

The Legislature’s election laws committee released a package of reforms, which includes a provision that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to “preregister” to vote. Under the bill, 16- and 17-year-olds could check a box on their application for a driver’s permit and automatically be registered to vote upon turning 18. Those 18 and older can already register in this way through Registry of Motor Vehicle offices.

“In 2008, nearly half of young voters aged 18 to 24 in the country were unregistered,” said the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover, at a press conference. He said the initiative could help address this by reaching young people while they’re still in high school, where pre-registration drives could be held. “People who get involved in the political process at an early age are more likely to stay engaged,” Finegold said.  

The bill would also make voter registration forms available online, enabling prospective voters to print a copy and mail it in. Furthermore, it calls for mandatory training of local election officials, and introduces a systematic approach to auditing voting equipment. After each election, 3 percent of the Commonwealth’s precincts would be randomly selected to have their voting machines inspected. The bill’s sponsors hope these measures will bring the registration process in line with 21st century expectations and increase confidence in the election process.

“We think we have come up with a very good piece of legislation, which will modernize our election laws, increase voter registration, and give increased integrity to our elections,” Finegold said.

Preregistration has already been implemented in a number of states, including Hawaii, Delaware, California, Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island. At the press conference, Avi Green, executive director of the advocacy group MassVOTE, said that based on the success of preregistration in other states, 20,000 16- and 17-year-olds would likely preregister to vote in Massachusetts each year.      

Where the state’s chief election official stands on the bill isn’t clear. Committee members thanked Secretary of State William Galvin for his feedback on the legislation and seemed optimistic that it would move swiftly through the Legislature.  However, Galvin’s spokesman, Brian McNiff, told the State House News Service that the secretary has “problems” with the proposals, though he declined to elaborate.    

Rep. Sean Garballey of Arlington voiced strong support for the bill and for other efforts aimed at encouraging participation of young people in politics. Garballey is sponsoring separate legislation that would allow 17-year-olds in Massachusetts to vote in municipal elections.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause Massachusetts, said the election laws reform act “is probably the biggest stride forward in election administration that we’ve had in decades.”