The case for automatic voter registration

Massachusetts should do all it can to promote participation in democracy

IT JUST MAKES good policy sense that every eligible resident in Massachusetts should be registered to vote — automatically.

In fact, automatic voter registration (AVR) should be among the Commonwealth’s important goals. It should be a civic priority.  It should be seen as a timely opportunity we take to bolster greater individual involvement in public life.

A bill currently under consideration on Beacon Hill can achieve this goal if passed by lawmakers this spring.  It’s a well-meaning decision legislators should make in the interest of broadening democracy and voter participation, especially for young people.

The bill was filed late last year by Rep. Evandro Carvalho of Dorchester on behalf of the New Democracy Coalition.  A hearing was held by the Joint Election Laws Committee in April.

Nationally, the push for AVR is morphing into a movement. Last month, Vermont became the fourth state to approve the law, following Oregon, West Virginia, and California.

Unfortunately, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey vetoed the AVR law passed by that state’s legislature late last year.  Had Christie let the law go into effect, nearly 20 percent of the country would now be covered by what is also called “no fault” voter registration.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, nearly two dozen states are considering AVR legislation, including conservative states like South Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

Automatic voter registration has been proposed in the US Senate by presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton endorsed the law last year.

And later this month, former US attorney general Eric Holder will call for national AVR legislation in a major policy address. If Holder’s vision were enacted, more than 50 million new voters would be registered at once.

The mechanics on implementing AVR in Massachusetts are straightforward: Public data bases — including records held by the registry of motor vehicles, military recruitment offices, high schools, public assistance offices, city and town residential censuses, and naturalization offices — are scrutinized electronically by the secretary of state to identify eligible voters.

Eligible voters are then automatically registered and notified. This new statewide database would be shared with election departments across the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns.  Should any voter decline registration, he or she would be allowed to opt out. When new voters go to the polls on election day to cast a ballot, they choose their party affiliation.

The case for automatic voter registration in Massachusetts is clear:

  • Approximately 700,000 eligible voters would be registered. Current law prohibits these residents from voting unless they sign-up nearly a month before elections.
  • The AVR law would ensure that thousands of high school graduates are registered as they enter college, trade schools or the workplace.
  • A vast number of minority voters would be placed on the roles, supporting their voting rights and responding to a legacy of disenfranchisement.
  • Massachusetts would save taxpayer money. The cost of consolidating a mass voter database would be modest. But full implementation of AVR will save enormous costs associated with printing multilingual voter registration forms and clerical processing. (Officials in Delaware say that electronic registration cost 3 cents per voter, while paper registration costs 83 cents per registrant.)
  • Voter registration would be permanent and mobile — following each resident as he or she changes addresses within a municipality or moves to another city or town.
  • Fraud would be reduced by creating a database that identifies the residence and polling location of each voter:  A voter who lives in Canton would be flagged if he tries to vote in Concord.
Strangely, opponents of AVR complain that the act of voter registration should remain a necessary task for residents.

They argue that an affirmative act to register should be required because it shows a voter’s real desire to participate in the electoral system. They contend that if residents don’t take action to register to vote, then they do not deserve access to polls.

These critics may be right. But their argument should not mean that we ignore opportunities to achieve universal registration. The position they take that it should “be difficult” to register betrays the notion that full electoral engagement is the ultimate end of participatory democracy.

Automatic voter registration in the Commonwealth would simply ensure that residents are positioned to vote should they wish to participate in elections.

If we are truly invested in democracy, then universal voter registration should be our goal. If we want to encourage a new generation of Massachusetts citizens to value  voter participation, then we must use the technology at hand to promote deeper, more robust voter engagement. If we want to assure that minority and poor residents participate on an even electoral “playing field,” then we must reorganize the voting process for the greater good, for the commonweal.

These would be the results of implementing the AVR law in the Bay State.

In recent years, Massachusetts has produced progressive voting rights laws, including redistricting that supports minority voting power, early voting, and online voter registration. The Legislature — including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg — should continue the Commonwealth’s progressive stance on voting rights reform.

After all, AVR is not just another unfunded mandate that adds to the complexity and expense of governance. Far from it.

The law would save the Commonwealth money. It would create a single, secure, statewide voter database that prevents fraud. It would signal to thousands of voters that the state supports the right to vote for everyone.

Meet the Author

Automatic voter registration is a pragmatic legislative tool needed to ensure that each voter is equally given the ability to participate in every election.

Kevin C. Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition.