3 better ways to make Mass. elections fairer

Voting and registration reforms could make a difference

AS THE DUST settles on the recent election, there is an emerging bipartisan consensus that Massachusetts’ election laws are due to be updated. The latest evidence for this comes in the form of a recent op-ed published in CommonWealth. But the devil is in the details.

In an opinion piece that misses the mark, Anthony Amore, previously a Republican candidate for statewide office, calls for a package of reforms designed to “lessen the stranglehold incumbency has on our state” and elect more Republican officeholders in Massachusetts. Amore offers three proposals: (1) holding primaries earlier in the year during election years, (2) randomizing the order in which candidates’ names are listed on a ballot, and (3) removing the “Candidate for Reelection” notation that by law accompanies the names of some candidates for reelection on ballots.

On their merits, these are sensible, if modest, proposals. Moving the state’s primary to earlier in the calendar year, in particular, would bring Massachusetts more in line with other states and likely improve most voters’ civic experience.

But Amore’s explicit linkage of the reform proposals to improving the electoral success of one party (Republicans) undermines his message and does nothing but breed voter cynicism. The purpose of electoral reform should not be to advantage one political party or the other. It is precisely this kind of partisan engineering that decreases voters’ trust in democratic institutions. Instead, improving our elections is a project we should all be invested in—it’s about lifting up all voices, and promoting trust in our democratic capacity to get things done.

Further, as a reform package, these proposals fall woefully short. Amore’s list of three items barely scratches the surface of what a true reform agenda looks like. There is so much more we need to do to make voting more accessible to all eligible voters and renew our civic commitment to meaningful participation.

To that end, here’s a better three-part agenda for making Massachusetts elections fairer, and more accessible to all.

First things first: we should make permanent the temporary voting reforms enacted this year to promote access to voting during the pandemic. Greatly expanded access to early voting and vote-by-mail options fueled record turnout in both the September primary and the November general elections. These reforms were resoundingly popular and, in general, well executed. Voters expect that they will become a permanent feature of our elections—and they are right to think that.

Indeed, numerous statewide officials have recently conceded that voters expect the expanded suite of voting options to become permanent. Secretary of State William F. Galvin has stated that mail-in voting is “here to stay” in “some fashion.” House Speaker Robert DeLeo was quoted as saying he “liked” the new mail-in voting system. As the Commonwealth’s Elections Divisions chief recently put it in a conversation convened by the Boston Bar Association, there are “no takesy backsies” on this one. That cat is out of the bag, and voters simply will not accept a return to the old days of mandatory in-person voting.

Going forward, state officials should make these reforms permanent, while applying any lessons learned from communities’ first experiences this year and (critically) appropriating additional funding to local communities to fully implement the law’s reforms.

Second, and just as important, is enacting same-day registration (also known as election day registration). Massachusetts—not exactly the tip of the spear on any pro-voter election reforms—is sadly behind 21 other states and the District of Columbia in delivering on this simple and universally popular reform. Passing same-day registration isn’t just about making it easier for new voters to cast a ballot. Because the law would let voters correct their registration details on the spot, it would also prevent the kind of red-tape registration hang-ups—like those caused by human error or a voter moving—that so frequently disenfranchise voters on Election Day for no good reason.

It’s also about equity. Same day registration is proven to expand voter participation in communities with traditionally low rates of registration and voting. That project should take on new urgency in light of data from this year’s elections showing that, while expanding mail-in and early voting options increased turnout statewide, the Massachusetts communities that benefitted from it the most were affluent, predominantly white communities, where registration and voting rates were already high.

Finally, we have to get automatic registration right. With much fanfare, in 2018, the Legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, a bill requiring the state to automatically register all eligible and un-registered voters. The law’s provisions became effective at the beginning of 2020, but the extent to which the provisions are actually in effect remains frustratingly unclear. We have seen little evidence of a surge in newly registered voters, and advocates’ attempts to obtain data from state officials has been stymied. Fully and transparently implementing automatic voter registration should be a no-brainer.

The Legislature should take action on each of these proposals in the next session. Many other states have already accomplished precisely these reforms, and, thanks to the hard work of advocates and policymakers, much of the legwork for accomplishing these proposals in Massachusetts has already been done.

Meet the Author

Patrick Roath

Chairman of the board/Attorney, Common Cause Massachusetts/Ropes & Gray
If enacted, the proposals here would set Massachusetts on a path to achieving a truly representative, broadly participatory democracy. That’s something we in this Commonwealth have been striving toward for a very, very long time. It’s also an agenda that I think most people in Massachusetts will get behind—even, perhaps, Amore.

Patrick Roath chairs the board of Common Cause Massachusetts. Previously an aide to former governor Deval Patrick, he is an attorney in Boston with Ropes & Gray LLP, where he maintains a pro bono voting rights practice. The views expressed in this piece are his alone.