‘Unmute’ the votes of Boston’s young people

It's time to enact same day voter registration in Massachusetts

AS PROFESSORS OF American politics, we have much to look forward to in the fall semester – actually sitting together in a physical classroom and never uttering that dreaded phrase “you need to unmute” stands out in particular. In Boston, our classroom examinations of whether and how to get politically involved have immediate impact given the impending city election.

But large numbers of our students, and other residents of Boston, won’t be eligible to vote.

Why?

Because current Massachusetts laws still require residents to register 20 days before an election, meaning that students registering during the first week of the semester cannot vote in the September 14 preliminary election for mayor and city council. And just like that, disappointment will infuse these young people’s first attempt to exercise their franchise in Boston – the original “cradle of liberty.”

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Legislature can change this by following the lead of 21 other states and Washington, DC, by adopting same day voter registration (SDR). If enacted, Massachusetts residents could register and vote on the same day. Well-developed security measures for SDR include cross agency and interstate verification, proof of identity, and/or casting of provisional ballots until the new registration is fully vetted.

Studies consistently show the value of this change for voter turnout. In the 2012 election, average turnout in states with SDR was 10 points higher than those without, with seven of those points directly attributable to SDR. And unlike many other electoral reforms that merely make voting easier for the politically active, SDR has the capacity to boost voting among otherwise non-voting individuals. SDR is thus a “twofer” – increasing turnout and cutting into demographic gaps in turnout. In fact, make that “threefer.” Political science research also makes clear that the more diverse the voters are, the more responsive subsequent policy is to the whole of the city.

SDR’s impact on young people is particularly strong. Studies suggest that this change alone may increase voting participation by up to 10 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds. Much of this jump comes from SDR addressing the unique circumstances that keep young people away from the polls, such as difficulties in registering due to higher levels of mobility. Removing these obstacles is particularly crucial in Massachusetts, given that the state has one of the largest populations of college students. Such demographics help to explain why advocates argue that adopting SDR could lead to 100,000 more voters in the Bay State.

Increasing youth turnout should be a priority, both in the US where youth voting is internationally low, and in Massachusetts specifically. Here, just over half of young people voted in 2020, as compared to 71.6 percent among the Bay State population as a whole. Such gaps only grow larger in local elections, such as the one taking place this fall. Whereas the median age of adults in Boston is 36.6, the median age among mayoral voters in the 2017 contest was 51.

Remember, policymakers respond to those who turnout. Hence, this age gulf in city elections has dire consequences. Young people are more likely to view climate change as a key problem for the government to address. Similarly, their views on issues like racism, immigration, and gun control, among many others, are significantly different than those of generations above them. Further, because young people represent the most diverse generation in American history, increasing youth turnout by adopting SDR will also help to address racial and ethnic inequality in American democracy, including the sizeable disparities in Massachusetts.

As state legislatures across the country and the US Supreme Court exacerbate these democratic inequalities by making voting more difficult, lawmakers in Massachusetts have an opportunity to move in the other direction by passing SDR. However, with the legislative session set to pause for summer recess at the end of July, time is running out.

We’d sure like to be able to tell our students on the first day of classes that they actually have the opportunity to vote in the city they call home and in Boston’s most historic mayoral election to date. Members of the Legislature, press “unmute” and allow their voices to be heard by immediately adopting same day registration.

Aaron Rosenthal is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Simmons University. Erin O’Brien is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.