More democracy now

Why Beacon Hill should allow same-day voter registration
April 2, 2008 4:36:14 PM


Those of us hooked on HBO’s John Adams miniseries have been basking in Massachusetts’s central role in ushering in our nation’s bold democratic experiment. Our state has a long, proud history of enfranchising the citizenry, and it should do so once again — by adopting reforms to make it easier and more convenient to cast one’s vote.

At a time when voter turnout is depressingly low — even here in Massachusetts, which ranks 21st in the nation in that regard — we should be trying every reasonable measure to boost those participation numbers.

Foremost among these changes, and closest to becoming reality, is same-day registration. It would allow people who have not previously registered to do so at their polling place on Election Day.

An additional 226,000 votes would have been cast in Massachusetts in the last presidential election had same-day registration been in place, according to a new study by Demos, a nonpartisan public-policy research firm in New York. That’s roughly the state’s entire population in Adams’s day — surely a number worth expanding the franchise to include.

MassVOTE and other advocacy groups, including MASSPIRG, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters, have pushed this reform to the brink of becoming law, despite the notorious reluctance of state legislators to tinker with the election processes through which they have won and retained office.

Appropriately, citizen action is now needed to prod the legislature into finishing the job.

We encourage you to sign the online endorsement petition at Then, join Massachusetts Common Cause for its citizen lobbying day at the State House this Tuesday, April 8.

In Massachusetts, where the registration deadline is 20 days prior to the election, thousands of residents miss the cut-off, perhaps because they moved and forgot to re-register, or reached voting age but failed or were unaware they had fill out paperwork.

Same-day registration not only would let those folks cast their votes, it would help reduce the chaos that reigned at polling places nationwide in the 2004 presidential election. Hundreds of thousands of people cast “provisional” ballots that year when their names did not appear on voter lists. Election officials then had to painstakingly determine which voters had previously registered, and whether they had done so prior to the deadline.

Eight states now allow same-day registration, including two (Iowa and Montana) that have adopted it since the 2004 election. A bill introduced here two years ago died, sent to the administrative dungeon of “further study.”

This year could be different. State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem and State Representative Gloria Fox’s recent bill on the matter received a favorable vote out of a joint committee in February. It now awaits action from the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

An increasing number of public officials who were previously wary of same-day registration now support the idea — including, most important, Secretary of State William Galvin.

Galvin’s previous resistance to the idea was founded upon legitimate concerns, and his current support is testament to how well those concerns have been addressed. Some predicted, for instance, that same-day registration would increase voter fraud by allowing people to register and vote multiple times, in multiple locations, on Election Day. Others feared that voters might “district shop,” choosing to go where their vote might have the most impact — think: thousands flocking to a district with a hot congressional race and grabbing a registration form and a ballot.

Those scenarios have not occurred in states that have tried same-day registration, and the current Massachusetts legislation includes sufficient steps to ensure not only that people vote only once, but vote only where they legitimately reside. Those steps, naturally, add to some election officials’ concerns that the process will overburden their already understaffed teams. Galvin’s approval suggests that a proper balance has been found.

Ideally, we would like to see same-day registration enacted as part of more comprehensive reform. Weekend elections would make it easier for working people to make it to the polls. It is unconscionable that in 2004, with the presidency at stake, Ohio voters up and down the queues were calling friends and co-workers to warn them not to bother trying to vote during their one-hour breaks, as observers described to the Phoenix .

Massachusetts could reschedule its state and local elections to weekends — we applaud Boston City Councilor John Tobin, who plans to propose Saturday voting at the municipal level — but presidential elections are beyond its scope. Even so, the state could implement other measures to make it easier to vote, such as expansion of early and absentee balloting.

And finally, like most other states, Massachusetts badly needs to improve the protocols for managing its voter databases, which are overseen in patchwork manner from town to town. A study of those voter rolls (examining the reliance on them to find jurors in Massachusetts federal court) found them wildly inconsistent with reality, particularly in urban areas. Bad voter rolls help explain why a quarter of those who cast Massachusetts provisional ballots in 2004 — whose names were not on the rolls in their polling place — were later verified as properly registered voters, trying to vote in their proper precincts.

All those reforms, and perhaps others, would be welcome, though some would require the more complicated process of amending the oldest functioning Constitution on Earth — written, as you are doubtless aware, by John Adams.


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