Make National Voter Registration Day worth celebrating

Mass. needs to get on board with movement to ease sign-up

TODAY IS National Voter Registration Day. It also happens to be the day of Boston’s preliminary election.

But there’s one way that Boston residents won’t be able to celebrate today’s holiday: registering at the polls.

That’s because Massachusetts remains an outlier in New England in not embracing same day registration. Maine has allowed people to register at the polls since the 1970s; New Hampshire, since the 1990s; Vermont and Connecticut joined in more recently. Even Rhode Island has a form of same day registration—albeit just for presidential elections. If our fellow New England states can manage same day registration, so can we.

And same day registration has proven results. According to a literature review by the GAO last year, the majority of studies on same day registration showed it increased turnout—usually by around 5 percent. In a low-turnout election—or any election, frankly, that 5 percent can make a huge difference.

Massachusetts almost embraced this decades-old reform a few years ago. The Senate included same day registration in its election reform bill, but it was dropped from the final bill. Fortunately, we may finally get same day registration soon—not through the Legislature, but through the courts.

In July, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled the state’s 20-day advance registration requirement unconstitutional, noting that it is “arbitrary and unnecessary” and excludes thousands from voting. Boston has a greater concentration of millennials than any other major city in the US, and it often feels as though all of us move on September 1st. Moving close to an election shouldn’t be grounds for disenfranchisement.

Secretary of State William Galvin is appealing the ruling, pushing the same myths of voter fraud that Donald Trump has with his Election Integrity Commission. Massachusetts, if it is to live up to its reputation as a birthplace of American democracy, needs to do better than that.

Although we’re often in the vanguard, we’ve been a laggard on another key voting reform: automatic voter registration. Many people are familiar with the “motor voter” law, which allows citizens to register while at the registry of motor vehicles. The system is currently an opt-in process, and countless studies have shown that if you want people to do something, it has to be opt-out, not opt-in. That’s what AVR does, helping bring our elections into the 21st century.

Oregon was the first state to embrace AVR in 2015, and nine states and the District of Columbia have followed—including our neighbors in Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Sen. Cindy Creem and Rep. Pete Kocot have filed a bill to finally bring it to Massachusetts. It has broad support in both branches, with the biggest obstacle being the Legislature’s characteristic inertia.

AVR increases the efficiency of election administration, reduces costs and paperwork for cities and towns, eliminates the need for constant re-registration when a voter moves, and improves the accuracy of the voter rolls. And AVR makes sure that more people are a part of the democratic process. Almost 700,000 eligible citizens are unregistered in Massachusetts, and their voices deserve to be heard.

According to the Center for American Progress, AVR is off to a great start in Oregon. It has helped increase the number of people who vote and made the electorate more representative of the state’s population. Those who registered via AVR were younger, lower-income, and more ethnically diverse than traditional voters. And that’s important because if you’re not on the voter rolls, you’re invisible to most politicians.

AVR has typically passed by wide bipartisan margins in other states. We hear a lot about resisting Donald Trump from Secretary Galvin and the Legislature. If they’re serious, one of the best ways to resist Trump’s agenda would be to buck his sham election commission and choose to expand voting rights. Show that Massachusetts isn’t afraid of more people participating in the democratic process because we know that’s what makes democracy strong.

If we’re lucky, Massachusetts will become the eleventh state to embrace AVR, and the court’s ruling on Same Day Registration will stand. Then next year, come National Voter Registration Day, we’ll have something to celebrate.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Jonathan Cohn is an editor and activist in Boston and the co-chair of the issues committee at Progressive Massachusetts.