FARE Act would help strengthen our democracy
Free public transit on Election Day would be small step in right direction
VOTING RIGHTS IS one of the nation’s most talked-about policies today, and it’s easy to understand why. In response to the hundreds of anti-voting laws that state legislators have introduced across the country, President Biden invoked the sentiments of the late-Congressman John Lewis in a stirring speech that emphasized how sacred the right to vote is. The speech was most clearly aimed at states like Georgia, which recently took steps as drastic as a ban on sharing food and drinks with those waiting in line to vote.
The assault on voting rights taking place in states like Georgia is undoubtedly important, though you do not need to look across the country to see the steep inequities that limit voter access and hamper our democracy. You can see them all too clearly in Massachusetts. You can feel them all too personally in our own communities.
Here’s what we mean: in the 2020 general election, Massachusetts witnessed a 28-year high voter turnout rate of 76 percent. Yet this result actually distorts what turnout really looked like across the state. According to MassVOTE, a voting rights organization, voter turnout rates reached 85 percent or higher in the Commonwealth’s predominantly white, wealthy, suburban communities. But in more diverse, lower-income, urban communities, voter turnout rates fell dozens of percentage points below that.
This proved apparent in the communities we represent, which include parts of Boston, Lawrence, and other surrounding communities. In parts of East Boston, for example, which is heavily Latinx, voter turnout hit only 61 percent. In Lawrence, which is majority Latinx, voter turnout was only 53 percent. In parts of the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, which is predominantly Black, voter turnout hit a stunning low of 42 percent. Here, far fewer voters, especially Black and brown, low-income, and immigrant voters, were able to have their voices heard.
No one policy alone is the answer to make our democracy completely accessible and inclusive. We will need numerous reforms in the coming years to create the substantive change we seek. But we believe in one policy that can help foster this change: the FARE Act.
The FARE Act, which we introduced as S.2261 in the Massachusetts Senate and H.3547 in the House of Representatives, would make public transit free on Election Day. Specifically, it would make all subway, bus, and trolley service fare-free for all statewide primaries and elections. It would apply to the MBTA, as well as the 15 regional transit authorities across the Commonwealth, meaning that virtually all corners of the state would benefit from this policy.
We believe the FARE Act is a common-sense solution that can help close the voter turnout gap in Massachusetts. This is because the same groups of people that unfortunately turn out to vote at the lowest rates – Black and brown, low-income, and immigrant individuals – also depend most on public transit. As of 2017, 9 percent of white households in Massachusetts lacked reliable access to a car. That rate is 25 percent for Black households and 27 percent for Latinx households. Nationwide, a majority of those who rely on public transit are people of color and live in a household that makes under $50,000 a year. By breaking down financial barriers to the ballot box, we can make our democracy more responsive to the very people it is underserving now.
While the FARE Act would make Massachusetts a leader in implementing this policy statewide, dozens of cities, including San Diego, Dallas, and Kansas City, provide free public transit on Election Day. When Los Angeles County, which is home to more than 10 million residents and nearly 6 million registered voters, made public transit free on Election Day, it witnessed a 5 percent increase in both bus and subway ridership. By understanding cases like these, we may ensure that the FARE Act thrives in Massachusetts.In passing the FARE Act, Massachusetts may take one small but critical step to ensure that our democracy is as accessible and inclusive as possible, especially for those experiencing greater barriers to the ballot box.
Joe Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat, is Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation. Frank Moran is a Democratic state representative from Lawrence. Chynah Tyler is a Democratic state representative from Roxbury. The FARE Act will have a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Transportation on Wednesday, July 28.