By Madiha Gomaa
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — Attleboro area lawmakers are split along party lines over Question 4 on the Nov. 8 ballot, which would to retain a law allowing immigrants the right to apply for a driver’s license regardless of legal status.
Republican state representatives Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, and Jay Barrows, R-Mansfield, voted against the initial measure and to uphold Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of it.
State Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, supported the bill and a successful override of the veto that led to placing the issue on the ballot.
Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. The bill’s passage made Massachusetts the 17th state to do so.
The law requires Massachusetts residents without legal status in the United States who are seeking a driver’s license to provide the Registry of Motor Vehicles with either a valid, unexpired foreign passport or a valid, unexpired consular identification document, plus one of five other documents.
In his May veto letter, Baker said the bill would significantly increase the likelihood that non-citizens would register to vote. He also highlighted concerns regarding the registry’s capability to verify foreign documents.
“I cannot sign this legislation because it requires the Registry of Motor Vehicles to issue state credentials to people without the ability to verify their identity,” he said. “The registry does not have the expertise to verify the validity of many types of documents from other countries.”
Secretary of State William F. Galvin has rejected Baker’s claims, describing them as “baseless” and emphasizing that the bill is about driving, not voting.
“This is an issue, as I said, about public safety. The idea that people could use these licenses to vote is simply not true,” Galvin said.
The absence of Question 4 in the information voters’ guidebook has stirred confusion. Galvin explained that although enough registered voters had signed the referendum petition for the question to qualify for the ballot, it was submitted after the deadline for inclusion in the printed booklet.
Question 4 as it appears on the ballot reads: “Do you approve of a law summarized below, which was approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate on May 26, 2022?”
Voting ‘Yes’ would keep the law in place, while voting ‘No’ would repeal it.
“Driver’s licenses are a privilege, not a right,” Howitt told The Sun Chronicle in explaining his opposition.
Barrows cited concerns about the fairness of the underlying bill, referring to people who have followed the law to secure lawful presence status or citizenship. In a press release, he also questioned whether sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent individuals who cannot provide proof of lawful residence from using a driver’s license to register to vote.
Despite Barrows objections, he previously supported an alternative proposal by state Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, allowing undocumented residents to apply for a state issued “driver privilege card.”
The card holders would be able to legally operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts, but it would not allow them to vote. The amendment was defeated.
On the other hand, Rausch said that the main reason for this legislation is to have safer roads.
“All of us are safer when every driver has to pass a road test, a vision test, and a rules test. That’s why chiefs of police, sheriffs, and district attorneys across Massachusetts support this policy: It makes our roads safer, decreasing hit-and-run accidents by 15% when implemented in Connecticut, our New England neighbor,” she told The Sun Chronicle.
“When this matter came before the Legislature, my office heard overwhelming support from people throughout our district,” she said. “Now, voters will make the ultimate decision about this policy as they cast their ballots on or before Nov. 8.”
Many advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations launched campaigns to urge a yes vote, claiming that the law would improve public safety by encouraging undocumented immigrants to undergo driver training and insure their motor vehicles.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the law will not only make roads safer but a yes vote would also bring the commonwealth a projected additional $5 million from taxes and $6 million from fees, inspections and other services.
Elizabeth Sweet, executive director of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, said that nearly 150,000 immigrant adults of prime working age are here without immigration status.
“A yes on 4 vote ensures that every individual regardless of immigration status learns the same rules of the road, takes the same road test and possesses the same insurance requirements,” said Sweet in an interview with The Sun Chronicle.
Sweet also said that voting yes would not allow non-citizens to register to vote.
“The reality is that several categories of non-citizens, including, for example, green card holders, or lawful permanent residents, have long been able to get driver’s licenses, but they’re not eligible to vote, and no voting issues have arisen with that group,” she said. “The law doesn’t allow drivers to use their license for any federal purposes.”
Sweet said that the registry had training on reviewing various types of immigration documents. “This bill, when passed, did give an implementation period to the RMV to allow them to put in anything further that was needed to implement this appropriately,” she said.
The new law is set to take effect July 1, 2023.
This story originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle.