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Modernize our elections

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration recently released a report on ways to make American elections run more smoothly and to reduce long lines at the polls. The bipartisan commission, co-chaired by the head election attorneys from President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s campaigns, found than 5 million people had to wait longer than an hour to vote in 2012. Some voters waited for more than six hours!

Even here in Massachusetts, thousands of urban voters waited in long lines of up to three hours. Others understandably could not wait that long and went home. Still others were turned away because of issues around inactive voting lists, registration glitches, and their inability to legally obtain an absentee ballot.

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Thankfully all of the Commission on Election Administration’s top legislative recommendations were recently passed by the Massachusetts Senate in a groundbreaking election modernization bill. These recommendations were online voter registration, early voting, permanent voter registration, and post-election audits of election equipment.

The Senate bill also included two other best practice reforms, Election Day Registration and pre-registration of 16 year-olds that engage more voters. The Massachusetts House also passed online voter registration and a more modest early voting proposal in 2013 and post-election audits and voter pre-registration in 2012.

If all of the Commission’s recommendations and Election Day registration and pre-registration are approved by the conference committee assigned to iron out differences between the House and Senate bills, Massachusetts will be at the forefront of expanding voting rights rather than lagging behind a majority of other states.

You’d think that Massachusetts would be a leader in adopting these proven strategies to make voting more convenient, efficient, and accessible to all, but we’re not — 19 other states allow voters who already have a signature on file at the Registry of Motor Vehicles to register online. Fourteen states have increased voter turnout among 18-24 year-olds with pre-registration, which allows young people to pre-register when they get their drivers licenses and then automatically makes the registration active when they reach their 18th birthday.

Thirteen states have adopted Election Day registration. No other reform would be as effective in fixing administrative problems or increasing voter participation. On average, states with Election Day Registration have turnout rates that are 10-12% higher than the national average. A diverse list of states have passed Election Day Registration and some, including Maine and New Hampshire, have been using it for decades with great public support.

A better voter registration system leads to shorter lines on Election Day by decreasing confusion for voters and poll workers alike. Less people go to the wrong polling location and there is less paperwork for poll workers. When poll workers have to call their town hall to hunt down registration information lines grow long, very quickly.

Massachusetts is particularly behind in adopting early voting. Voters in 32 other states can already vote early. The Commission recommended expanding early voting hours, especially on evenings and weekends, to reduce lines and to give busy people more opportunities to vote. Extending voting hours prior to Election Day gives people who commute a long way, hold down two jobs, care for kids and elderly, or just try ‘to do it all’ the flexibility to carry out their civic duty.

Another of the Commission’s recommendations, post-election audits, ensures that vote counts are accurate and that voting machines are working properly. Twenty-six other states perform post-election audits.

A broad coalition of organizations has been pushing for years to put Massachusetts on the road to modernization. It’s gratifying to see that Massachusetts is on the cusp of achieving that goal—but only if the conference committee adopts the Commission’s recommendations and Election Day registration and pre-registration. Let’s not have another Election Day with absurdly long lines and other glitches that prevent citizens from voting. Let’s make sure that every citizen who wants to vote has the opportunity to do so in this complicated world we live in. It’s long past time that voting moved into the 21st century.

Pam Wilmot is executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
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