Voting reforms are long overdue

Early voting, same-day registration needed

In an era of voting rights retrenchment – where electoral freedoms are steadily eroding nationwide – Massachusetts lawmakers on Beacon Hill are on the verge of doing the unexpected: Passing an omnibus voting rights act.

 The Massachusetts Senate late last week sent legislation to the House of Representatives which would, among other enabling civic measures, allow early voting and same-day voter registration.  

Same-day voter registration would allow any citizen in the state to sign-up as a voter as late as election day and cast a ballot in that election.  The law is hugely popular among voters where it is in place, including Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Washington, DC.  California is in the process of implementing the measure, which was passed there last year.

According to Demos, a New York-based non-partisan civic rights organization, same-day registration increases voter turnout between 9 to 12 percentage points during presidential elections, produces insignificant administrative costs, and leads to little voter fraud.

The early voting provision of the bill is the helpful twin to same-day registration. It would allow a 10-day period leading up to election day during which registered voters could cast ballots instead of having to go to a polling place on election day.

Last June the US Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eliminating the requirement that states historically known for voter suppression adhere to strict federal monitoring. Days after the court’s decision, voter identification bills were filed in state legislatures in North Carolina and Texas, which, according to a 2013 University of Chicago and Washington University study, will negatively impact election turnout.

According to Common Cause Massachusetts the voting rights legislation now pending on Beacon Hill would produce immediate positive effects and few drawbacks.  The organization estimates that the legislation would lead to 100,000 more Massachusetts voters participating in elections, while eliminating the administrative task and cost of recording provisional ballots.

Other components of the voting rights package now being considered by the House include insuring that voter registration automatically changes to a new address when voters move within the state, and allowing pre-registration for high school students so that they will be automated registered to vote upon turning 18.

The bill will, in particular, provide greater electoral access for blacks, Latinos, and the poor, who are less likely to participate in elections with voter registration deadlines and who show increased engagement rates when such barriers are eliminated.

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There are reasons to be hopeful about voting rights, despite the recent moves in the opposite direction. Last week members of Congress issued legislation that would strengthen the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court weakened. Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania judge earlier this month struck down a voter identification law that would have effective disenfranchised thousands of voters.

Gov. Deval Patrick favors same-day registration and early voting legislation. Beacon Hill legislators should hurry this legislation into his eager and waiting hands.

Kevin C. Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition, which focuses on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice.