Voting reforms will improve our democracy

It's time for the Legislature to act

THE WORK TO make our democracy more equitable and accessible in Massachusetts remains unfinished. Now that the temporary emergency voting measures for the pandemic have expired, it’s time for Massachusetts to look ahead towards modernizing our elections and removing the many barriers to voting across the Commonwealth.

Barriers like:

  • The 20-day voter registration deadline, which unnecessarily and unfairly limits the political participation of the elderly, youth, people of color, and low-income, especially in Boston and our Gateway Cities;

  • Clerical errors, misspelled names, or incorrect addresses that are only realized by voters when they attempt to vote on election day, and are then required instead to fill out a provisional ballot;

  • Time, especially for low-wage workers juggling multiple jobs or who take on extra shifts and need the flexibility to vote outside of the 13 hours on election day and parents who can’t find childcare coverage;

  • Access due to incarceration. Upwards of 9,000 voters currently housed in our county jails – who are legally eligible to vote – face a flurry of obstacles to cast a ballot despite being considered a specially qualified voter under state law.

The list goes on and on. Massachusetts should lead, not lag, and it’s time to make changes to ensure our democracy is strong, accessible, and equitable.

A bill progressing through the Legislature holds the solution to these barriers: it’s comprehensive, and provides a roadmap to a 21st century democracy.

The bill, An Act Fostering Voting Opportunities, Trust, Equity, and Security, better known as the VOTES Act, was filed by Rep. John Lawn and Sen. Cindy Creem. The VOTES Act includes critical and overdue reforms like same-day registration and jail-based voting, permanent vote by mail and extended early voting, and fixes to the 2018 Automatic Voter Registration law, while also setting a due date for Massachusetts to enroll in the Electronic Registration and Information Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to assist states in improving the accuracy of their voter rolls.

The VOTES Act has made great progress already. It was passed out of the Joint Committee on Election Laws with a favorable report in July, passed by the Senate in October, and is currently pending in the House Ways and Means Committee, with broad support from more than half of the members of the House. House members have already voted in support of the majority of provisions in the VOTES Act in recent years. We are hopeful that a comprehensive bill will get to the governor’s desk in early 2022. But any bill that is sent to the governor’s desk to increase access to voting in the 21st century, must include reforms proven to make democracy more equitable.

Same-day registration is a game-changer. New research conducted by University of Massachusetts Amherst and Demos shows that same-day registration will boost voter turnout, particularly for Black and Latino voters, by upwards of 17 percent. Same-day registration is also very popular. A December 2021 poll conducted by UMass Amherst shows that 65 percent of Massachusetts voters support same-day registration. The public has basically already voted in favor of mail-in voting, with more than 1.5 million people voting by mail in the record turnout of November 2020. Jail-based voting reforms and other modernizing pieces of this bill are also long overdue.

Adding to its popularity, the VOTES Act has also received over 100 endorsements from unions, faith-based groups, business groups, statewide and local organizations, and advocacy groups who’ve joined together to push for the passage of the bill. The Boston Globe editorialized in support of such comprehensive legislation earlier this year too.

Now that the emergency voting measures for the pandemic have expired, it’s time for Massachusetts to look ahead towards modernizing our elections and making our democracy more accessible and equitable once and for all. We applaud Senate and House leaders for rising to this moment in history and we are hopeful that the full and complete bill will advance to the governor’s desk in early 2022, well-enough in advance of the fall 2022 elections.

Let’s finally do away with these barriers to voting and take deliberate steps to increase voter turnout in the Commonwealth. Voters support these reforms and the times demand them. Until the VOTES Act is passed in its entirety, our work remains unfinished.

Geoff Foster is executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.