Voting made easy


The young man in a tattered baseball cap walked up to Sharon Adair’s table at the Ward 5 polling place near City Hall in Concord, New Hampshire. Daniel Taylor wasn’t on the list of registered voters for the September primary, but that didn’t stop him. Adair confirmed that Taylor’s driver’s license had a current address, helped him fill out the voter registration form, and sent him off to another election official to get a ballot.

Then the 22-year-old stepped into a booth with a red-white-and-blue-striped curtain and voted for the first time. Taylor liked the idea that he could register and vote on the same day, rather than having to register in advance. “It’s efficient and allows people not to be inconvenienced by a long, drawn-out process,” he said.

New Hampshire is one of a growing number of states that have moved to Election Day registration to make it easier for their residents to vote. It’s the biggest no-brainer since 18-year-olds got the right to vote nearly 40 years ago.

The ultimate beneficiaries of Election Day registration are groups that usually get tripped up by traditional registration deadlines, including college students, low-income residents, minorities, and people who have recently moved. It also boosts voter participation and doesn’t cost much, even though cost was one of the concerns raised this summer when an Election Day registration bill failed to pass the Massachusetts Legislature for the second time in three years.

In addition to New Hampshire, the states of Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming allow voters to register on Election Day. North Carolina voters can register and cast a ballot anytime between three and 19 days before an election, while North Dakota doesn’t have statewide registration at all. This year, 23 states besides Massachusetts have considered legislation to adopt the practice. And two Democratic US senators, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have introduced a bill that would require all states to offer Election Day registration for residents voting in federal elections.

One important but little-known benefit of Election Day registration is that signing up voters at the polls does away with provisional voting, which has proven to be a disaster. After widespread voter registration problems during the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which mandated provisional voting in the states that did not have Election Day registration. In Massachusetts, that means that if a person’s name doesn’t show up on a precinct’s voting rolls, he or she can vote using a special ballot. The vote is counted later, as long as he or she meets identity and residency requirements.

But the dirty little secret about this cumbersome process is that most votes don’t get counted because of various kinds of administrative errors. After the election, municipal election officials research a voter’s record. If everything is in order, the ballot gets counted. But if a person is registered, but voted in the wrong precinct, for instance, the ballot is not tabulated. During the 2004 presidential election in Massachusetts, for example, 10,060 people cast provisional votes. Only 2,319 were validated.

Under Election Day registration, provisional voting would go away, and that would be a good thing, says Maryann Draine of Attleboro, part of a small group of Bay State municipal officials who observed the New Hampshire process in action. But she was “still not sure” how the switch might affect other issues back home, such as dealing with inactive voters who haven’t participated in an election for some time. (In the Bay State, if a voter fails to vote in two consecutive federal elections and does not return a municipal census form, his or her name is stricken from the voter list. That person is still registered to vote but must bring proof of residency to the polls.)

Midwest rules

In Iowa, Election Day registration was an easy sell to local officials, according to Secretary of State Michael Mauro. The Hawkeye State unveiled the new process in January. The administrative work is similar to provisional voting, but gone are the headaches of verifying addresses, deciding which ballots to count or throw out, and possible legal challenges. “You are going to save yourself lots of issues on the back side if you ever run into a race that’s really close,” Mauro says.

Poll workers still check that a voter is in the right precinct, and they scrutinize photo identification and residency documents. A voter also must sign an oath declaring that the information is true and correct. Filing a false registration in Iowa is a felony carrying a five-year maximum prison term and a fine of up to $7,500.

To protect against fraud, voters who register on Election Day receive notices from their respective counties afterward. (In Iowa, county auditors administer elections in the state’s 99 counties.) If that gets returned, a second forwarded notice goes out. If the county auditor doesn’t receive a response within 14 days, the county attorney and the secretary of state investigate.

New expenses, such as training for election officials, have been minimal. Polk County, which includes Des Moines, hasn’t incurred any additional staff costs, having switched workers who handled provisional voting over to registrations. The $70,000 to $80,000 spent on ballots this year for its 260,000 registered voters includes only a few extras for the November general election. Though the real implementation test comes this fall, Iowa’s low-turnout June primary went without a hitch. (Adair, the New Hampshire election official, admitted that registering voters in November can get “crazy.”)

Credit for Iowa’s new registration template goes to its trailblazing northern neighbor. The first state to adopt Election Day registration, in 1973, Minnesota usually leads the country in voter turnout. (Most Election Day registration states have turnout rates that exceed the national average.) With an urban/suburban population that more closely resembles the Bay State than does Maine or New Hampshire, the Land of 10,000 Lakes stands out as a national model of success. “If [people] are eligible to vote, then there shouldn’t be bureaucracy that stands in the way of them voting,” says Gary Poser, Minnesota’s director of elections, who testified at an Election Laws Committee hearing last year on Beacon Hill in support of the ill-fated Massachusetts legislation.

But there were early hiccups. Minnesota lawmakers originally budgeted about $125,000 for implementation and ended up spending more than six times that amount, according to an report. During the 1976 presidential election, more than one in five voters registered on Election Day, which meant long lines as officials sorted out problems like voters showing up at the wrong polling place. Critics continue to point to long lines, especially near colleges and large tracts of apartments, as a concern.

But Rachel Smith sees no drawbacks. The election supervisor for Anoka County, an area of suburban and rural communities north of Minneapolis, believes that clear and consistent poll worker training is the key to running a smooth election for the region’s 185,000 registered voters. She says that mastering the types of voter identification required by the law, particularly for anyone who relocates right before an election, is their biggest challenge. On the other hand, fraud hasn’t been a major issue; the one voting irregularity in Anoka County in 2006 involved absentee balloting.

Election Day registration is so ingrained in Minnesotans that they come in for a rude awakening when they relocate elsewhere. Every year, Smith receives more than a few calls from former residents who moved to states with voter registration deadlines. Shocked to learn they’ve missed the cutoff, they want to know if they can return to vote in Anoka County. They are even more upset when Smith delivers the bad news. “There is nothing I can do,” she says.

Fear factors

On a cool midsummer evening, the 60 or so supporters of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama were fired up. “Everyone is excited, young and old,” shouted state Rep. Gloria Fox to frequent bursts of applause at a Roxbury4Obama organizing meeting at Roxbury Community College. Beneath large posters of Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and other legendary figures in iconic poses, campaign workers outlined the logistics for what they claim will be the largest voter registration drive in the history of Massachusetts.

One thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on in 2008 is signing up new voters. Adam Spang, a John McCain supporter and president of the Northeastern College Republicans, also has been hard at work planning voter registration drives. He argues that allowing people to register and vote on Election Day is the best mechanism to increase voter turnout. “This is definitely going to benefit young people,” he says.

Eventually it might, but any Massachusetts resident who hasn’t registered by now won’t be voting in November: The registration deadline is 20 days before a primary or state election. Allowing registration at the polls would allow more than 225,000 new people to vote in the Bay State, according to Demos, a nonpartisan research group based in New York. Turnout among 18- to 25-year-olds alone would increase almost 10 percent, the group says.

(At press time, Secretary of State William Galvin planned a Hail Mary attempt to introduce a scaled-back Election Day registration proposal that would allow certain individuals whose names do not appear on precinct voting rolls, but who are otherwise eligible, to register and vote. But prospects for passage during informal legislative sessions, when all it takes is one lawmaker to block a bill, are slim.)

Fear of change helped scuttle Election Day registration on Beacon Hill. Some lawmakers who had challengers in the September primary believed that a new registration process would benefit their opponents, says Fox, a Boston Democrat and the lead House sponsor. “They felt as though there would be so many of those other people, young people, people of color, black people who would come out, that they would eventually be unseated,” says Fox, who declined to name names.

Sen. Edward Augustus echoes her take. “There are a lot of people in this building who are skeptical about having people show up to vote who they can’t anticipate,” says the retiring Worcester Democrat who championed the bill in the Senate. “Campaigns have evolved away from trying to encourage people to vote and participate.” However, fear of the unknown voter doesn’t get much credence elsewhere. David Guarino, spokesman for Speaker Sal DiMasi, an Election Day registration proponent, chalks up the failure to the end-of-session logjam of legislation. (Supporters of the measure intend to re-file the bill during the next session.)

Voter fraud is another often-cited black mark against Election Day registration, but a 2003 Caltech/MIT study found that fraud is rare in the Bay State. Local officials interviewed for this article cited the new expenses that could be incurred by cash-strapped municipalities, not fraud, as their top beef. Indeed, the debate in the Legislature degenerated into a tit-for-tat squabble over funding.

Where Secretary of State Galvin saw about $1 million in statewide expenditures, the Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association saw a price tag of $4 million to $5 million. They also claimed that costs, which weren’t specifically spelled out in the fiscal 2009 budget, amounted to an unfunded mandate. (Galvin responded that the clerks miscalculated the costs and availability of voting machines for people with disabilities.) Toss in uncertainties about getting the bugs out of new procedures before a major election, and it’s not surprising that many clerks turned thumbs down on any changes.

Yet the Legislature opened up an even bigger can of worms by failing to prioritize election reforms going into a presidential election year. The prospect of crowds of people at the polls needing provisional ballots has Bay State election officials worked up. And not in a good way. “We still have a practical problem this November,” says Galvin.

In addition, earlier registration changes also designed to make life easier have unintentionally confused some voters. Thanks to the National Voter Registration Act (also known as the Motor Voter Law), Massachusetts residents can sign up to vote at any Registry of Motor Vehicles office. But if an individual files a change-of-address form later on, he or she must complete another form in person at a registry location so that the new address can be forwarded to municipal election officials. Unfortunately, many people forget that step or assume that the changes get made automatically.

Many people legitimately believe that they’re registered, only to find out on Election Day that they’re not, according to Malden city clerk Karen Anderson, who favors the change to same-day registration. She says that if a voter has moved to Malden from Springfield, for example, he or she could probably vote if they drove back west. “Which doesn’t do them a lot of good,” Anderson adds.

Worse, when voters fill out a provisional ballot (a measure that some election officials also use to defuse a confrontation with an angry person over a problem that a provisional ballot won’t necessarily solve), they usually don’t follow up to check its status. If the ballot wasn’t tabulated, the person never finds out and the error doesn’t get cleared up. Anderson senses that Massachusetts is creating a sub-class of voters who regularly vote by provisional ballot and whose votes don’t count. “That’s troubling to me,” she says.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

So, in a historic presidential election year when election officials from coast to coast expect record-setting numbers of voters to flock to the polls, the Bay State may end up disenfranchising thousands of voters. Strangely enough, the sentiment on both sides of the debate is that Election Day registration is a question of not if, but when. Whether the lawmakers, the secretary of state, the clerks, and voting rights advocates can reach a consensus on costs and new procedures before the 2010 election, however, is the more pressing dilemma.

“There are issues with implementing change,” says Diane Jeffery, president of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, who was turned away once from a Cambridge polling place because she hadn’t re-registered after she moved from Amherst. “But in every other state that has implemented Election Day registration, the sky hasn’t fallen.”