Election laws need overhaul

It’s time for a comprehensive voting-reform bill

The Massachusetts Legislature recently accomplished what few believed was possible.  With a singular commitment to broadening democracy in the state, it adopted a fair and comprehensive redistricting plan.  For this achievement, members of the Legislature should be lauded.  After all, the body’s history regarding redistricting has been a troubled one — pockmarked with acts of duplicity, prevarication, and federal lawsuits. 

To our good fortune, more positive developments for electoral reform now loom.  As the Legislature moves into the second half of the lawmaking session, it should consider complementing its redistricting victory with an omnibus election law providing citizens increased electoral autonomy and flexibility.  

To achieve this, pieces of proposed legislation now under review with the following provisions should be merged into a comprehensive election law reform bill:

Election Worker Training Law

Providing better customer service at the polls on Election Day will add value to the voting process, offering the electorate highly-trained poll-worker staff at each election site across the Commonwealth.  Under this law, Election Day workers would be trained in the precise Election Day rules, procedures, and activities designed to eliminate Election Day inconsistencies and unintended voting errors. 

Voter Registration at Public Libraries

Currently, only city and town halls and public assistance agencies function as officially designated facilities for voter registration in the Commonwealth.  This bill will allow for expanding registration sites into neighborhood libraries, where voters will have greater access to voter registration forms and basic information about elections. 

Pre-Registration Bill

Giving young people a head start in engaging the voting process is a good thing that deserves encouragement.  The Pre-Registration Bill will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to register to vote early.  Upon turning 18, they will be able to vote in city, state and federal elections with no need to register again.  Such a law will allow for high school-based voter registration and will likely increase registration levels among this cohort of voters.

Voter Age Reduction for Local Elections

A large body of research shows that people who are introduced at younger ages to the political system are more likely to participate in civic affairs in adulthood.  This law would give youth a jumpstart on active citizenship by allowing 17-year-olds to vote in local elections for such offices as town board of selectmen, city council, school committee, and mayor.

Mandatory Election Audits

We should be testing the integrity of our election process regularly to ensure our Constitution’s one-person, one-vote objective.  The elections audit law will require that we randomly sample election results to ensure that every vote counts.  By employing the automatic review of state and federal elections, we will guard against election breakdowns and irregularities.

The Polling Location Accessibility Fund

Challenges to voting still exist for many who are elderly or disabled.  This law would make available to municipalities funding that would improve the physical conditions at polling sites, allowing citizens with disabilities easier access to the polls on Election Day. 

Universal Voter Registration Act

The current voter registration process is antiquated.  It is estimated that nearly 200,000 eligible voters are not registered in the state.  Yet existing database capacities allow us to automatically register eligible citizens upon turning 18 years old.  Such a law would save the Commonwealth substantial printing and data entry costs and reduce the likelihood of voter registration fraud. 

Meet the Author

Voter turnout in the state barely exceeds 50 percent in presidential election years, an embarrassingly low mark.  Voter participation is significantly lower in state and local elections.  The legislation being considered by the election laws committee represents a pathway toward reviving our anemic body politic.  An omnibus voting rights act will serve as a welcome encore to the exceptional advances achieved recently through redistricting.

Kevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization focused on civic literacy and electoral justice, based at the College for Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston.