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OPINION

Massachusetts should pass Election Day registration legislation

Allowing voters to update their information on Election Day encourages them to go to the polls.

A booth is ready for a voter, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, at City Hall in Cambridge, Mass. on the first morning of early voting in the state.
A booth is ready for a voter, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, at City Hall in Cambridge, Mass. on the first morning of early voting in the state.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

There’s nothing more basic to our form of government than the right to vote.

But in Massachusetts, our laws sometimes get in the way of exercising that right. The state’s voter registration process has a 20-day cutoff before each election — and every election thousands of people who miss the deadline, have moved, or have errors in their registration, are disenfranchised. This can be solved by allowing citizens to register on the same day they vote, as 21 other states and the District of Columbia already do.

The state Legislature is considering a bill to allow Election Day registration. The idea is supported by Secretary of State Bill Galvin and Attorney General Maura Healey, as well as by voting rights groups including Common Cause Massachusetts, the League of Women Voters Massachusetts, the ACLU, and Lawyers for Civil Rights.

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It's a single, simple solution to several problems people encounter while trying to vote.

Under the current system, registration mistakes — even typos — can prevent citizens from voting with regular ballots. Although these voters are supposed to be offered provisional ballots, too many report to the Election Protection hotline that they were turned away without casting a vote at all. Provisional ballots also create extra work for elections officials, and in Massachusetts only 30 percent are ever counted, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission. Same-day registration would allow on-the-spot corrections so these voters could use regular ballots — making sure that their choices are included in election tallies — provided they present appropriate documentation at the polls.

Same-day registration would also help members of the military vote while they’re stationed here. Frequent redeployments make it hard to keep voter registration up to date, so more than 72 percent of America’s active-duty military and their families are not registered to vote where they live. Federal law does allow them to vote by absentee ballot from an old address if they are still on that jurisdiction’s voting rolls, but many end up not voting at all. Election Day registration helps service members to vote where they live, and to be certain they can cast a ballot.

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Election Day registration also protects the right to vote for other citizens who have recently moved. About 13 percent of the state’s residents have changed addresses within the past year — and may have forgotten to update their voter registration. A law that was implemented on Jan. 1 closely ties driver’s licenses and voter registration, but inevitably some voters will fall through the cracks. Same-day registration would allow them to update their address when they vote, ensuring that no eligible voter is disenfranchised.

In other states, same-day registration is overwhelmingly used by voters to update their address rather than register for the first time. In Vermont, 95 percent of people who used the system in 2018 had already been registered but needed to update their address after a move or correct a mistake; only 281 voters registered for the first time.

Allowing voters to update their information on Election Day encourages them to go to the polls, even if they’re not certain about their registration status. States with same-day registration report 3 to 12 percent higher voter participation than those without it.

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We all agree that voting is a fundamental right and a responsibility. Election Day voter registration will allow thousands more eligible citizens to exercise that right. The Legislature should adopt it this session and remove the bureaucratic barrier of the current registration deadline.

Pam Wilmot is the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.