Election Day voter registration is good for democracy

A simple reform could boost turnout and civic culture

TODAY — THE FOURTH Tuesday of September—is National Voter Registration Day. It’s also the day that Boston voters will go to the polls for hotly contested preliminary elections for City Council.

If the past is any guide, turnout will be low (we’ll be lucky if it passes 10 percent), a product of both apathy and design.

We all have work to do to counter the apathy that drives low voter participation and to build a stronger civic culture. However, that’s a multi-year, ongoing process. Eliminating the barriers that exist by design is much simpler.

Take, for example, our 20-day voter registration cutoff date. If you didn’t register to vote, or update your registration, by September 4, you can’t vote today. Two-thirds of all leases in Boston turned over on September 1, just a few days prior. Moving, as anyone who has ever moved knows, is a hectic experience.

By the time that a graduate in a new apartment, a young family seeking more affordable rent, a retiree who decided to downsize and move, or a new Bostonian coming here to work finds out that an election is even happening, they’ll be shut out of it. The decisions made by the City Council affect them just as much as any other resident, but they won’t be able to have a voice.

Boston isn’t the only city with an election today. Voters in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Lowell, cities that—like Boston—have large renter and immigrant populations—will also go to the polls. And the same problems of apathy and design will lead to middling turnout. Statewide, 15 percent of people who are eligible to vote can’t vote because they aren’t registered: almost 800,000 people.

Other states, including many of our neighbors, have realized this problem and eliminated a registration cutoff altogether. Maine has allowed eligible voters to register on Election Day since 1973. New Hampshire has since 1996. And Connecticut and Vermont eliminated their registration cutoff dates more recently.

The results bear out the benefits of such a decision. Research shows that allowing voters to register, or update their registration, on Election Day leads to a bump of about seven percentage points in turnout, and seven out of the ten states with the highest turnout in last year’s midterms were states that allow Election Day Registration.

Election Day Registration also makes the voter rolls more accurate. Not only can people change their address, but they can also correct any clerical errors in their registration, a problem that disproportionately affects immigrants and people of color. It’s simple: No voter should get turned away because of a clerical error.

Election Day registration also creates a more positive experience at the polls for everyone. Provisional ballots create more work for election officials, and they leave new voters wondering if their vote will even be counted.

When Attorney General Maura Healey testified in support of Election Day registration earlier this year before the Joint Committee of Election Laws, she stated clearly, “Voting rights are civil rights.”

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
As voting rights and civil rights of all kind are under attack on the federal level, it’s important for states to take the lead in strengthening rights and our commitment to the fundamental tenets of democracy. Since last year, states like Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington, and Utah have done just that by joining the ranks of states with Election Day registration.

Massachusetts should join them.

Jonathan Cohn is chairman of the issues of committee of the advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts.