House should pass same-day voter registration

It's time for Mass. to catch up with 18 states already on board

LAST WEEK, Congress and the Biden Administration failed to advance federal voting rights legislation, prompting pundits and politicians to re-iterate the necessity of advancing legislation to strengthen voting rights and access in the states. Today, the Massachusetts House of Representatives is seeking to do just that, and bringing the VOTES Act to the House Floor. 

The VOTES Act, a comprehensive election reform bill, seeks to make mail-in voting and expanded early voting permanent. It seeks to strengthen participation in elections – and advance equity. As members of the House consider amendments to the legislation and prepare to vote, they must consider evidence-based practices to actually accomplish just that.

Strategies for increasing turnout typically fall into two categories: (1) those that ensure that no one who wants to vote is turned away and (2) those that increase the number of people who want to vote.

The second category covers a wide range of strategies, from changing the dates that we hold elections, to strengthening civic education in schools, to improving the quality of local journalism, to reducing the economic insecurities and stressors of everyday life that distract and discourage. The solutions are similarly wide-ranging.

For the first category, though, the solutions are far more straightforward, and the Legislature already knows what to do.

One example is same-day registration, which allows eligible voters to register or update their registration at the polls. The Senate VOTES Act passed in October 2021 includes same-day. The House version made public Wednesday morning does not.

The Boston preliminary election last year fell 15 days after the city’s major move-in day. But with a registration cutoff five days prior, many voters were shut out of the election or forced to travel to their old and possibly inconvenient polling locations. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Boston: It happens every year with our early September primary elections, as well as in cities across the Commonwealth with large renter populations.

But same-day registration isn’t just about helping those who moved close to the election or had otherwise not yet updated their registration. It is also a recognition that no one should be disenfranchised due to clerical error. A voter should be able to fix a typo in their name or address with no undue hassle.

The good news about same-day registration is that it works. Studies have shown that it is one of the best reforms for increasing turnout. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia already have it, including our neighbors in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont. Same-day registration has worked well in Maine and New Hampshire for decades now. We even had a brief window of same-day registration last year, when the COVID elections reform bill expanded the early voting period and shortened the voter registration blackout period so that they overlapped. We just need to make it an intentional and permanent policy, rather than an unintended bit of good will.

Another step the Legislature must take is improving the laws and practices around jail-based voting. The Senate VOTES Act included detailed requirements to accomplish just that. While the House VOTES Act includes requirements that would affirm the responsibility of houses of corrections and prison officials to provide voting materials, the requirements are far more limited.

With few exceptions, those who are currently incarcerated face de facto disenfranchisement. Because Massachusetts has yet to implement statewide requirements to ensure these voters can cast a counted ballot, they face insurmountable barriers and are shut out of the democratic process. Such de facto disenfranchisement also fosters confusion around voting rights that leads many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals to believe that they don’t have the right to vote when they do (Massachusetts law only denies the franchise to those currently incarcerated on a felony conviction). Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated organizers report that corrections officers tell them they have been permanently disenfranchised. Amendment #13 to the VOTES Act, filed by Representatives Liz Miranda and Chynah Tyler, would create a badly needed elections infrastructure behind the wall and ensure citizens returning to the community are registered and know their rights.

Given that nearly 60 percent of Massachusetts’ disenfranchised incarcerated voters are Black or Hispanic and low-income, jail-based voting reform is critical for protecting the political power of exactly those groups who are the targets of voter suppression.

What’s more, researchers like Ariel White at MIT have long shown that incarceration itself suppresses political participation even after short jail sentences. If we are serious about racial equity, political equality, and ensuring a participatory democracy, the Legislature must prioritize this reform.

House leadership and members must vote to include same-day registration and strong jail-based voting reforms in the VOTES Act so that we can guarantee that no eligible voter who wants to participate in our democratic process gets turned away. Then, it’s time for all of us to roll up our sleeves and work on the harder, and year-round, task of increasing the number of people who want to participate in the first place.

Meet the Author

Kristina Mensik

Guest Contributor, National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls
Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Kristina Mensik is co-chair of the Democracy Behind Bars coalition. Jonathan Cohn is chair of the issues committee at Progressive Massachusetts.