3 steps Mass. should take to boost voting rights

Too many of the state’s voters are disenfranchised

SINCE THE SHOT heard around the world at the battle of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts has been at the forefront of modern democracy. The Massachusetts Constitution – which was drafted by John Adams – formed the model for the United States Constitution and remains the oldest continuously-operating constitution in the world. Despite this history of democratic leadership, in recent years Massachusetts has fallen behind other states in ensuring that all eligible voters can register, vote, and have their votes count. The upcoming legislative session is an opportunity to change that and build on the work done in 2020 to open up voting to more people during the pandemic.

It was encouraging that Massachusetts leaders, like those in many other states, took important steps this year to expand early voting and to send vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter.

And it worked. More than two-thirds of eligible voters – a record 3.6 million people – turned out to vote despite COVID-19. With the law now set to expire, it is vital that the Legislature act without delay to make vote-by-mail permanent. But we should also seize this opportunity to modernize our voting laws to remove the unnecessary obstacles Massachusetts voters face to registering, voting, and having their votes count.

Here are three common sense steps Massachusetts can take right now to once again be a leader in voting rights.

Modernize our registration system. Too many eligible voters – many of them young voters and voters of color – are unnecessarily disenfranchised by arbitrary voter registration deadlines. Massachusetts should join our neighbor New Hampshire and 20 other states and the District of Columbia in implementing same-day voter registration for both early voters and election day voters. We should also allow voters to register to vote online and reform the administration of our automatic voter registration law to enroll more eligible voters when they interact with state government agencies.

Expand early voting. Early voting has been extraordinarily successful in Massachusetts but it is only available in some elections. The Commonwealth should expand early voting to all elections and allow early voting the weekend before Election Day, as many other states do. The Legislature should provide cities and towns the funding needed to implement this expansion.

Mail every eligible voter a ballot. The Legislature should not only make vote-by-mail permanent, it should require the Secretary of State to mail every registered voter a ballot rather than an application for a ballot. Sending an application for a ballot is a needlessly complicated step that increases the cost of administration and the burden on voters and election workers. Other states, such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Hawaii, have shown that mailing all registered voters a ballot is easy and it has not resulted in fraud. Return postage should be prepaid and the Legislature should allow mail ballots to count if they are postmarked – rather than received – by the time polls close on Election Day. Despite President Trump’s lies, a “postmarked by” deadline does not mean that voting continues after Election Day.

Our terrific Massachusetts congressional delegation will no doubt push Congress to enact changes at the federal level along a path paved by civil rights icon John Lewis. This year has shown irrefutably that our democracy is under attack. There is an urgent need for national leadership to repair our fragile democratic norms and institutions.

Meet the Author

Quentin Palfrey

Chairman, Voter Protection Corps
Meet the Author
But Massachusetts must not wait for Congress to act. Instead, we should seize this opportunity to make Massachusetts a national leader on voting rights again and take bold steps to ensure that all eligible voters can register, vote, and have their votes count.

Quentin Palfrey is chair of the national Voter Protection Corps and was the 2018 Democratic nominee for Massachusetts lieutenant governor; Jamie Hoag served as chief deputy counsel to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and is an advisor to the Voter Protection Corps.