State takes step to hike voter participation, but same-day registration still not the law
Two weeks ago the Massachusetts House and Senate passed the final version of a comprehensive election laws bill. Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill quickly into law. The Legislature and governor have acted with an eye to building a better democracy.
A strong democracy relies on robust voter participation. For some time now, however, voter turnout on Election Day has been below what many of us would consider a healthy level. Even presidential elections do not achieve remarkable rates of voter turnout, which is often below 60 percent in our country’s biggest election. Lethargic participation is particularly pronounced among younger voters who are the future of our democracy.
In part to address lagging voter turnout, the Legislature has identified this as the time for action. The product of an extended conference committee negotiation, the final election laws bill includes a number of strong measures to increase voter participation, modernize our electoral apparatus and generally strengthen our democracy.
The law includes the following provisions:
Massachusetts will have early voting in biennial state elections. Starting in 2016, voters will have the opportunity to vote before Election Day. Early voting will be available in person or by mail and may include evening and weekend hours at municipal discretion.
Voters will be able to preregister to vote at age 16. Studies show that the voting habits developed early in life affect lifelong participation, so it is crucial that we make every effort to register young voters and get them to the polls. Preregistration at age 16 will ensure that many more young people are registered come their first election and that the only step between them and voting is going to the polls.
Eligible voters will be able to register to vote online. By making registration (and pre- and re-registration) easier, we reduce hurdles to voting and encourage participation.
Voters will be able to check their registration status and polling place online. This will avert the experience some voters have of arriving at the polls only to find something awry with their status.
Post-election audits of voting equipment will be required after every presidential election. This measure should help to eliminate technical problems or discrepancies in vote counts.
Training will be provided for town clerks. Changes in election law are particularly hard on town clerks’ offices that see increased responsibilities. Providing proper resources for some of our most important elected officials is central to updating voting law in the commonwealth.
There were also a number of provisions that were not included in the final bill but were either favored by election law advocates or present in the House or Senate versions. Above all others, I was disappointed that Election Day registration (sometimes called same-day registration) was not part of the bill, though a task force is to study the possibility. The Senate included Election Day registration in its bill and I pushed hard to pass the measure in the House, but there was resistance from some quarters.
Also noteworthy: There will be no early voting for municipal elections. Early voting is a labor-intensive process, as voting stations have to be open for an extended period rather than for one day. In fact, many town clerks would have preferred an expansion and reform of absentee voting (such as “no excuse needed” absentee voting), but the state constitution sets forth the only acceptable reasons for absentee voting, preventing reform to that system absent a constitutional amendment and instead requiring the early voting approach. So as not to implement too much reform at once, early voting will not apply to municipal elections.
In recent years America has watched the Voting Rights Act lose some teeth. Many of us have watched with dismay as a number of states have put voting policies in place that – while ostensibly neutral – seem to tend to deny the vote to specific groups. This was a good moment for our commonwealth, so central to the founding of our democracy, to take action to strengthen our electoral process to make it easier to vote, not harder. I am proud to say Massachusetts is striving to find ways to bring people to the polls and pleased to have played a part in making that happen.
Yet we have work before us. We still need to reform the way money affects our elections, still need to increase transparency between government agencies and voters and still need to support stronger civics education to produce citizens and voters with the know-how to vote and engage with their government. To that work we must all now turn.
Dave Rogers is state representative for the 24th Middlesex District, which includes parts of Cambridge and Arlington, as well as all of Belmont. He welcomes questions or comments and can be reached by calling (617) 722-2400 or by sending email.