Same-day voter registration can help invigorate democracy

Increasing turnout is hard; but breaking down barriers to the ballot should be easy

OVER THE PAST couple of weeks, many pundits and politicians have lamented the low turnout in our local elections. Indeed, if turnout in our local elections is rarely exceeding 30 percent, then we all need to do some serious reflection about how to change that.

Today, National Voter Registration Day—the fourth Tuesday in September—is a fitting day to do so.

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 Boston preliminary election this 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 could take is improving the laws and practices around jail-based voting.

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. The Jail-Based Voting Bill (H. 836/S. 474) 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.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Meet the Author

Kristina Mensik

Guest Contributor, National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls
The Legislature will likely take up a voting rights package this fall, permanently extending popular provisions like expanded early voting and vote-by-mail. Lawmakers should make sure to include same-day registration and strong jail-based voting reforms 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.

Jonathan Cohn is chair of the issues committee at Progressive Massachusetts. Kristina Mensik is the national campaigns director at The National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls.