A proposal by state lawmakers to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to “preregister’’ to vote is getting a cool reaction from local city and town clerks.
The proposal, part of a larger electoral reform bill adopted by the Massachusetts House on May 23, is intended to spur more young people to participate in elections by making it easier for them to register. Those preregistering would be added automatically to the rolls once they turn 18 and become eligible to vote.
But local clerks say the plan would cause headaches both for their offices and for those who preregister.
“Most town clerks feel that the procedure is unworkable,’’ said Wakefield’s town clerk, Mary K. Galvin, who holds that view herself.
“It's going to be very time-consuming to be following when they are going to be eligible to vote,’’ she said of those who preregister. “And that is time we frequently don't have to devote to that.’’
Galvin also worries that teens who preregister and then move out of town to attend college, for example, will mistakenly believe they can vote in their new community when they reach eligibility age.
Burlington Town Clerk Amy E. Warfield also sees the proposal as “adding a layer of confusion’’ to the voter-registration process.
She predicted some 16-year-olds who preregister will mistakenly “show up at the next election assuming they can vote.’’ Like Galvin, she also envisions preregistered teens heading to college and then thinking they can vote in the community where they are a student.
“Our concern,’’ Warfield said, “is if you are not able to do something until you are 18, what is the real benefit of preregistering?’’
Voicing similar concerns, the statewide associations of town and city clerks, and the secretary of state's office have opposed the preregistration proposal. They have also raised objections with another provision of the electoral reform bill that would require random audits, conducted by hand, of the voting in 3 percent of precincts after each election.
“We think that the problem in Massachusetts is much less one of registration than of turnout,’’ said Laurence R. Pizer, town clerk in Plymouth and chairman of the legislative committee of the Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association. He estimated that 90 percent of the state’s residents who could be registered are on the voting rolls.
“We think the . . . benefit they're talking about of preregistration is being exaggerated, and the problem of confusion is being ignored,’’ Pizer said.
But state Senator Barry R. Finegold, an Andover Democrat and a key sponsor of the bill, said low voter participation among young people is a national problem that needs to be addressed.
“Half of the young voters, those 18 t0 24, were unregistered in the last presidential election in 2008,’’ said Finegold, cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws.
“A lot of times what happens is they want to vote but it’s past the deadline’’ to register for a particular election, he said. If they knew they were already preregistered, he said, “more people would take advantage of that.’’
Finegold noted that a number of other states allow preregistration by teens.
“We are absolutely listening to our town clerks and their concerns, but we think with technology we can alleviate those concerns,’’ Finegold said.
Andover Town Clerk Larry Murphy, a member of the legislative committee of the Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association, said he and his colleagues support the goal of motivating young people to become involved in the voting process, noting that just last month, his town held a registration drive at the high school.
“We just don't think this is the best way to do it,’’ he said of the House bill.
“We don't mind the work, but we want to keep it clean,’’ Murphy said of voter registration.
“My concern is we are going to have a lot of people on our voting lists who really shouldn't be there.’’
Ipswich Town Clerk Pam Carakatsane said she thinks “it's a good thing to get everyone to register to vote,’’ but added, “I just think the whole issue needs further study.’’
Warfield said she welcomes one provision in the bill, calling for a task force to take a broad look at changes to the electoral laws.
Clerks want to reform the electoral process, she said, “but we'd like to do it in a more strategic manner.’’