Voter Registration

What’s in a name? Not much when it comes to the state’s “motor voter” law. Though it may conjure up visions of drive-through polling places, there’s still no “Kwik-Vote” kiosk at the local mall.

But officials say the 3 1/2-year-old law has done a lot for Massachusetts, despite its misleading moniker: It has pushed the number of people registered to vote to a record high by making the registration process easier than ever.

No longer do you have to make a special trip to town (or city) hall. Since January 1995, residents have been able to register when renewing a driver’s license at the Registry of Motor Vehicles (thus the “motor voter” tag), when applying for services at state public assistance offices, or by filling out a postcard and dropping it in the mail.

“I hate that name,” says Jack McCarthy, chief of staff for Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees all elections in the Commonwealth. But he says the law has had “a tremendous effect.” About 500,000 more people are registered to vote today than before “motor voter” became law.

In 1994, about 3.15 million people were registered to vote in the Bay State. The number jumped to 3.46 million in 1996–a 9 percent rise and the biggest increase in any two-year period in the state’s history. As of the most recent count, in February, there were more than 3.65 million registered.

That means a healthy majority–78 percent–of the state’s residents 18 and over is registered. That’s up from 75 percent in 1996 and 69 percent in 1994.

Almost four of every five adults in the state are registered to vote.

McCarthy acknowledges he has no way to know for certain that the new rules caused the rise, but he says it’s the only logical explanation.

The “motor voter” law would be “the most massive change in voter registration laws for the past 50 years in this state,” Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, predicted when the plan was unveiled in 1993. It came on the heels of a new federal law that required states to allow people applying for a driver’s license to register to vote at the same time.

As in every other state, Massachusetts set up a computer network to transmit the information by linking each Registry of Motor Vehicles office to the Secretary of State’s office, and the Secretary of State’s office to every town and city clerk in the Commonwealth.

Ironically, the most popular form of voter registration made possible by the “motor voter” law has nothing to do with driving. Most people now register by mail, McCarthy says. All Massachusetts post offices–and many other public offices–have stacks of the white, card-stock voter affidavits. Smoothing the way for the state’s growing immigrant population, the state prints forms in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Haitian-Creole, and Portuguese, as well as in English.

Only deputized registrars could add people to the rolls before 1995. Now community activists like Tackey Chan, chairman of the Quincy Asian American Association, can distribute the affidavits themselves. “I always carry voter registration cards in three languages in my briefcase in case I run into someone,” he says.

Nancy Carapezza, president of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, agrees the new law has been a boon for the registration business. The League, as well as the AFL-CIO, the state Republican and Democratic committees, and other groups, orders forms in bulk for mass distribution. “It has been very positive in making it easier for us to register voters and for them to take the first step in participating in democracy,” Carapezza says.

But as for the second step–actually voting?

About 71 percent of the state’s registered voters turned out in the 1994 general election, and 75 percent of registered voters turned out in the 1996 general election. Although the percentage of the voting-age population that bothered to cast ballots is considerably lower–49 percent in 1994 and 56 percent in 1996–Massachusetts has consistently done better than the national average.

Voter participation in primaries has been pretty dismal, however. About 14 percent of registered voters went to the polls for the 1996 presidential primary and 12 percent for the state primary.

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The League of Women Voters and other civic-minded organizations offer rides to polling places and information about the issues in hopes of encouraging people to vote. But they know they have a long way to go. “We like to think we are making a difference,” Carapezza says. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

But when those drive-through Kwik-Vote kiosks come to town….