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Driver's licenses, road safety and immigration: navigating Mass. ballot Question 4

Ballot Question 4 on Massachusetts ballots asks voters whether they approve of a law the Legislature passed earlier this year, before it even takes effect. The question is the result of a push to repeal the law, which would allow Massachusetts residents without documentation to get a state driver's license if they meet certain requirements.

A "yes" vote means voters want to keep the law. And a "no" vote means they want it repealed.

Advocating for a "yes" vote is state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Democrat from Northampton. She voted for the bill in the Legislature. Opposing this measure is Rep. Nick Boldyga, a Republican from Southwick, who voted "no" when this came up on Beacon Hill.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: You both have had the opportunity to discuss this issue at length while it was being debated at the Statehouse. Rep. Boldyga, the reality is that people without legal immigration status are still driving in Massachusetts, even without licenses. The Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association backs this law. A group of Hampshire and Franklin law enforcement officials also support it. They say it would make the roads safer since more people would learn the rules of the road. They'd pass a test, get a photo ID and get insurance. So, why do you think they're wrong?

Rep. Nick Boldyga: Well, Carrie, I can tell you firsthand — I'm a former full-time police officer, and I know that giving these people a driver's license is actually not going to make the road safer. I support legal immigration, and the fact is, there's no scientific studies whether or not giving someone a driver's license will make the road safer.

But what I can tell you is that even AAA has done statistics over the last 30 or 40 years. [From] statistics nationwide and in Massachusetts, hit-and-runs are from drunk drivers. They're drunk drivers that conduct hit-and-runs. It's not people that don't have licenses. So when a drunk driver hits somebody, the first thing they do, because they're intoxicated, is to leave the scene of the crime. So giving driver's licenses to people that are undocumented is not going to help hit-and-runs in Massachusetts or make the road safer.

And there's a number of other issues that we need to to recognize, as well. We want to bring this into line with other states. Other states in New England actually require ID to vote. So one of the things, if we're going to give driver's licenses to people who are undocumented, which No. 1 is not going to make the road safer, what we should also do is get in line with Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, that require an ID to vote. That's what we need to do.

And the federal government needs to be processing the... roughly 300,000 people in Massachusetts who are here undocumented. That's not up to the RMV. The RMV can't process 300,000 people here without ID, so this should be left up to the federal government. Secondly, employers cannot hire people that don't — that are not here legally. So if they have a driver's —

We're talking about making roads safer. So you've stated that. Rep. Sabadosa, what does your side say?

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa: Well, I would say, first of all, this is definitely not an issue for the federal government. This is an issue for the states. The states are in charge of licensing. Delaware v. Prouse, 1979, the Supreme Court reiterated that the states have a vital interest in licensing residents. And that's what we're trying to do here in Massachusetts.

We use the term "undocumented immigrants," but quite honestly, a lot of these people, about 80%, have standing with the federal government. They're either here on asylum, they're either refugees, they have some sort of process that they are trying to work through, to the rep's point, to try to become legal residents. So what we're really doing is not trying to help other people — we're trying to help our neighbors who are here, and who need this process in order to simply live their lives.

We don't live in a state where public transportation is reliable, particularly here in western Massachusetts. And I've had the privilege of sitting on the Transportation Committee for my entire tenure in the state House. So I've sat through hours and hours and hours of hearings, debating this piece of legislation. It was not written in a vacuum. It was written with the input of the major chiefs who told us, these are the documents that you should be asking for. The secretary of state's office, who assured us this legislation will maintain the integrity of our elections if passed, with folks from the RMV.

So with all of those people coming together, we have worked very hard to craft a piece of legislation that can, in fact, be implemented properly and put us in line with neighboring states.

Lawmakers overrode Gov. Baker's veto of this bill. In his veto message, he worried about the Registry of Motor Vehicles being able to tell legit documents from forgeries, and the possibility of voter fraud. Rep. Sabadosa, what makes you confident that these aren't significant concerns?

Sabadosa: Well, in my past life, before running for state rep., I was actually a translator. So it was part of my job to help the process in other states to ensure the documents were coming through, were translated properly and were being submitted. So I've seen the way that this has played out in other communities.

I have every faith that the RMV is going to be able to do this. In fact, my daughter is 16, so she's applying for a permit. One of the very first things when you go on to apply is it asks you for either your SSN or for your foreign passport. We know that the RMV is issuing licenses daily to college students who are here from other countries, for people with temporary protected status, for "Dreamers," and for people with green cards. So this is something that the RMV already has the ability to do, and they will be able to do this as well for our undocumented neighbors.

Rep. Bodega, why was the governor correct in his veto?

Boldyga: We're talking about the same RMV that can't actually keep track of whether you have a speeding ticket in neighboring Connecticut. The fact is, they're not going to be able to process these.

As a former law enforcement officer and a current state representative, the RMV is the last place that should be left up to processing driver's licenses for undocumented workers. Like I said, they can't even keep track of a speeding ticket you get across the state border in Connecticut. And they're not going to be able to keep track of this or identify these people from other countries. So it's the last thing we should be doing. And hit-and-runs are wrought by drunk drivers, not undocumented migrants.

Rep. Boldyga, one argument the folks looking to repeal this law point to is the possibility of attracting more undocumented people to the state. But 16 other states offer this. Why would Massachusetts suddenly see a rush of immigration, and would that be a bad thing?

Boldyga: No, I think immigration is great — legal immigration, not undocumented migrants coming to Massachusetts. We need a way to process them so we should make sure this is legally, it's done through the federal government, have people get in line and like everybody else — like my relatives did 100-plus years ago. They got their citizenship legally and that's how it should be done. And they should come to Massachusetts, and I welcome them as soon as they're legal residents of the United States.

Do you want to speak to that, Lindsay?

Sabadosa: Well, I guess I would just say we're not really here to debate immigration today. We're here to debate whether we should be upholding the legislation that the Legislature passed.

So I would really say that I don't think that we're going to see an uptick in people coming to Massachusetts because of this law. We didn't see that in other states. The law very clearly states that you have to be a resident of Massachusetts. You need to prove residency, much like when you're applying for MassHealth or other benefits that require being in the state for at least six months.

So I don't think that we're going to see an uptick. Although I think, much like Rep. Boldyga, that immigration is wonderful. It has made our country the place that it is, and I hope that we will continue to support it.

We've reached the end. Rep. Boldyga, why should people vote to repeal this law? You have 30 seconds.

Boldyga: Thank you, Carrie. Once again, as a former law enforcement officer and a current state representative, the truth of the matter is that hit-and-runs are conducted by drunk drivers. AAA has done studies over the last 40 years that show that. They're not by people that don't have driver's licenses. Hit-and-runs are by people who are drunk drivers with licenses here in the commonwealth. They're not by undocumented workers.

And the fact is that... giving licenses to 300,000 people in Massachusetts who are not documented is not going to be something that the state can handle. And we're not going to know who these people are. They need to do —

Thank you very much. Rep. Sabadosa, why should people vote "yes"? Thirty seconds.

Sabadosa: The best way to make our roads safer is to make sure that everyone who drives on them is licensed and has a registered vehicle and is insured. This legislation provides a pathway for that to occur for those who might not otherwise be able to obtain a license.

This legislation has been thoroughly vetted by insurers, by police chiefs, by district attorneys, by the secretary of state's office. It is a strong piece of legislation that can be easily implemented that will make our roads safer and that will protect our elections.

Demonstrators display a banner and chant slogans during a rally in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse on June 9, 2022, held in support of allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses in Massachusetts.
Steven Senne
Demonstrators display a banner and chant slogans during a rally in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse on June 9, 2022, held in support of allowing immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses.

There's been some research on this question of safety after states allow for undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. Hans Lueders, a post-doctoral researcher affiliated with Stanford's Immigration Policy Lab, described how implementation affected California's road safety.

Hans Lueders, researcher: So, I think that really depends on how you define road safety, right? If you just look at the overall number of accidents, we find basically no effect at all. So there's, like, no change in the probability that people are involved in accidents. But we do find a decrease in hit-and-run accidents.

So the big takeaway is hit-and-run crashes decreased?

Lueders: Yes.

Was it fast or was it nearly immediate?

Lueders: Yes. We looked at the short-term consequences in this. We basically look immediately at the year after the policy was enacted, and there we find a substantive decline in hit-and-run accidents. We did a follow up study, just internally, and the patterns persist over time.

What are some of the other takeaways from your research?

Lueders: I think that the big question with all of these policies is not necessarily only: How do they impact undocumented immigrants who might be able to drive? It's more of a question like: What are the consequences for the communities in which they live, for broader society? And I think a few factors to keep in mind here is, in the case of California, given that the California state government expected to be issuing a lot more driver licenses, to be administering a lot more tests, they had to hire a bunch of new people. I think they created a few more DMV offices, actually.

So that office obviously has a lot of positive economic consequences for people getting employment through this. It created a lot of new revenue for the state government. And in terms of traffic safety, I think it didn't make anybody worse off. I think the [takeaway] of my research, if at all, it makes some people better off because of this decline in hit-and-run accidents.

Is this what could be expected in other states that have similar laws, or are there things that make California unique about these results?

Lueders: So I think the one big question here is comparing California to other states, to what extent people are reliant on private transportation — that is, cars — or if they can use any form of public transportation.

And I would argue that this is relatively difficult across a lot of different places in the United States once you leave big urban areas. So I think the need to drive is really there in most parts of the country. And then I would also expect these policies to have very similar consequences, not just in California, but more broadly.

In the ballot question debate, it was said a few times that the people who flee the scene of a hit-and-run crash are drunk drivers. Did you find that to be true in any of your research?

Lueders: I cannot answer that question because I do not have data on this. Because the problem with making such a statement is that by definition, drivers who have run away, we don't know who they are, right? Because they are gone.

So I think in a way, this must be a little speculative, or any statement we can make about these drivers depends on the subset of drivers that ran away that we could catch afterwards. And I don't know to what extent that is representative of everybody who runs away. So I don't know if that is true.

Updated: November 3, 2022 at 11:28 AM EDT
This post has been updated to include Rep. Boldyga's party affiliation.
Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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