Immigrant driver’s licenses are a ‘law and order’ issue for both sides

Conservative victories are rare in Massachusetts, thanks largely to near-total Democratic domination of the state legislature. But they aren’t unheard of — and they tend to come via nerd questions. In 2000, voters backed cutting the state income tax to 5%. In 2012, they chose not to legalize physician-assisted suicide after the Catholic Church helped drive opposition to the proposal. And in 2014, swayed in part by arguments from then-state Rep. Geoff Diehl, voters nixed automatic increases to the state’s gas tax.

Now, as Massachusetts prepares to vote on the repeal of a new law that will let immigrants without legal status get driver’s licenses beginning next July, some conservatives sense an opportunity for another landmark win.

“I think the Democratic Party just overreached when they passed this law,” Mass. GOP chair Jim Lyons said before a recent weekend vote canvassing effort in North Andover, an affluent suburb of Lawrence.

“They have no, I don’t think, understanding that the people of Massachusetts really are concerned,” Lyons added. “They underestimated this anger that is so prevalent in our society today.”

The law in question will let immigrants without legal status get driver’s licenses if they can provide proof of their identity, show Massachusetts residency, and meet the standard licensing requirements, including passing a road test. The legislature adopted the law in June, overriding Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto. A “Yes” vote on Ballot Question 4 would keep the law on the books, while a “No” vote would repeal it.

As repeal advocates make their case to voters, they’re tapping into an array of fears and frustrations. One canvasser who joined Lyons in North Andover said he’d spoken with several immigrants who came to the US legally and think the new law is fundamentally unfair. Another canvass participant, Republican state senate candidate Sal DeFranco, said he lost his sister to the opioid epidemic, and predicted that the new law will let unauthorized immigrants involved in drug trafficking operate with impunity.

But Lyons, who’s presided over the Mass. GOP’s turn toward forming President Trump, said that concerns about election integrity are top of mind for the voters he speaks with. He also claimed, erroneously, that the law “is written in a manner that anybody can go to the registry, can get their license, and they’re automatically registered to vote.”

In fact, the law explicitly tasks the registrar of motor vehicles and secretary of state with crafting procedures to prevent license applicants who aren’t eligible to vote from being automatically registered, though it doesn’t specify what those procedures should be. Since 2020, the Registry of Motor Vehicles has shared basic information on license applicants with the secretary of state’s office, which then registers eligible individuals to vote.

Pressed on that detail, Lyons, a former Republican state representative, shifted his argument, saying the Democrat-dominated legislature can’t be trusted when it comes to making sure the system works as intended.

“When you leave open-ended language, it’s going to be decided by the same people that put this foolish law in place to begin with,” he said.

Lyons’ suggestion that Democrats are eager to let people vote illegally reflects a growing conviction among many Republicans, fueled by Trump, that electoral results are no longer trustworthy. A recent poll from The New York Times and Siena College suggests that 41% of Republicans have little or no faith in the validity of the upcoming midterm election results, compared to 13% of Democrats and 26% of independents.

Ordinarily, the secretary of state provides voters with an official description of each ballot question in the so-called “Red Book,” an election guide which is mailed to voters every election cycle. In this case, the late-breaking push to put Question 4 on the ballot prevented Secretary of State Bill Galvin from providing a summary to voters in that publication, though Galvin told the Boston Globe he’ll print a supplemental voter guide and make it available at all in-person voting locations.

Absent that description from the state, the descriptions of the measure offered by the two sides — and their ability to convey them to voters — loom especially large.

Recently, supporters of the law gathered in East Boston’s Central Square for a canvass of their own. One of them — Roxana Rivera, the vice president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union – had pushed the issue for years before state lawmakers put it on the books.

Rivera noted that the neighborhood is home to many members of her union, which represents about 25,000 cleaners and other workers in the area. While many of them advocated for the law before it passed, she said they may not realize that victory could become defeat in a matter of weeks.

“We have to remind folks that we still have a challenge here,” she said.

Like the law’s opponents, Rivera and other backers have been marshaling a wide range of arguments in its favor. For example, back in April, when the law was stil being debated, a roundtable of supportive big-city mayors framed the bill as both as an economic catalyst and a way to reward undocumented immigrants who were essential workers during the pandemic.

In recent weeks, however, Rivera and her allies have focused on the fact that the law is supported by a broad group from the state’s law enforcement establishment — or, as one piece of campaign literature put it, “[a] majority of Massachusetts city police chiefs, sheriffs, and district attorneys.”

“This nerd initiative is simply about safe driving,” Rivera said in East Boston.

GBH News has reported that hit-and-run accidents dropped in Connecticut after a similar law went into effect, a data point that might sway some drivers. But as Rivera made the case for preserving the law, she put the daily experience of police and others front and center.

“Local law enforcement were saying, ‘Let us do our jobs, and we don’t need to have unnecessary delays [from] traffic stops,’” Rivera said. “They want to just ensure that folks know the rules of the road, that they take the test, that they’re more likely to be insured.”

Rivera said she believes that message resonates both with law enforcement and with voters.

Two new polls show that Rivera and her allies currently have a substantial but not insurmountable lead. The MassINC Polling Group found that 49% of likely voters plan to vote “Yes,” compared to 37% who said they plan to vote “No.” According to the Suffolk University Political Research Center, the “Yes” side’s lead is a bit bigger among likely voters, 56% to 39%.

For Republicans and Republican-leaning unenrolled voters, that’s a far more winnable contest than the races for governor and other statewide offices. Those MassINC and Suffolk polls show Diehl, who’s now the party’s nominee for governor, trailing by 30 and 23 points, respectively.

So far, though, the law’s opponents haven’t figured out how to effectively use what may be their best asset—the consistent opposition expressed by Baker, who’s poised to leave office next year as the most popular governor in the country.

As Lyons, the Mass. GOP chair, noted in North Andover, Baker’s veto message expressed concern that the bill could lead to ineligible individuals casting ballots, and warned that staff at the Registry of Motor Vehicles lack the expertise necessary to vet forms of identification from across the globe.

Lately, though, Baker has shown little interest in urging voters to repeal the law. And while the fliers distributed by the law’s opponents in North Andover featured three current Republican candidates, Baker’s name and image were nowhere to be found.

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