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OPINION

Voter suppression happens in Massachusetts, too

Our election laws put us in line with some of the worst states in the country.

Election inspector Taquaine Mason observes a voter drop his ballot into the box during early in-person voting, Oct. 29, 2020, in Cambridge.
Election inspector Taquaine Mason observes a voter drop his ballot into the box during early in-person voting, Oct. 29, 2020, in Cambridge.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Last week Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed the latest in a series of voter suppression bills springing up across the country. Months after Donald Trump tried and failed to overturn the most secure election in American history, our democracy remains under attack. I’m on a team of voting rights lawyers fighting back in Georgia, and my colleagues are doing the same in Florida. But simply playing defense is not enough.

States like Florida and Georgia are setting national standards on election policy. Unless other states proactively innovate to expand democracy, the United States will be stuck in a race to the bottom. To win the fight against voter suppression, Massachusetts needs to step off the sidelines and start playing offense.

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Just as Massachusetts led on public education, health care reform, and marriage equality, the state should also lead on voting access. Instead, our election laws put us in line with some of the worst states in the country: Massachusetts doesn’t allow all voters to vote absentee, it cuts voter registration off 20 days before Election Day, and its voter rolls are out of date. American democracy began here — we cannot fail to act now when it’s under attack.

State-level election policy has national implications. Litigating across the country to make voting easier and safer during the COVID-19 pandemic, I found that making the case for vote-by-mail and other reforms was in part possible because none of the reforms were completely new — forward-thinking states had already led the way. California implemented no-excuse absentee voting in the 1980s, and Oregon became the first state to adopt all-mail voting in 1998. Those states had successful track records that accelerated the use of more accessible methods of voting everywhere.

As states like Florida fast-track anti-democracy efforts, states that care about democracy need to take bold, proactive steps to expand it. The Massachusetts Legislature should pass the VOTES Act, which would make expanded absentee voting and early voting permanent, allow registration through Election Day, increase voting accessibility for eligible incarcerated citizens, and improve electoral security and integrity. Updating the state’s archaic election laws would put Massachusetts on solid footing.

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But we cannot stop there. Massachusetts should be blazing the path forward to make democracy accessible to everyone. That means creating an independent redistricting commission and ending prison gerrymandering, the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of their prison instead of their home communities. It means allowing cities and towns to experiment with reforms like lowering the voting age and using ranked-choice voting in local elections. It also means removing criminal penalties for things like assisting an eligible voter to submit their signed, sealed ballot. And it means implementing robust and creative civic education programs for youth and adults alike.

We should pay attention to democracy reform in Massachusetts not just because it has the potential to spread elsewhere, but also because it is critically needed here. With 20 percent or less of registered voters participating in many of the primaries and municipal elections that shape our government, and with just over half of eligible voters of color participating in recent midterms, it’s no wonder that Massachusetts faces striking gaps in racial and gender representation. And these are more than unsavory statistics. They underlie policy outcomes that have long left large groups out, resulting in Massachusetts being the sixth-worst state in the country for both income inequality and racial equality in education.

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To be sure, advocates should not let up on the most egregious voter suppression measures around the country. But that doesn’t mean Massachusetts cant also execute a proactive strategy to counter theirs. In fact, it demands the same urgency for a pro-voting race to the top.

Protecting democracy isn’t something we should leave to red and purple states. Irrespective of electoral outcomes, the fact that a significant number of Americans don’t believe in the legitimacy of the democratic process hurts all of us — Democrats in blue states, too. America’s democracy was born in Massachusetts, and 245 years later, the Commonwealth is called again to lead the way.

Jyoti Jasrasaria is a Massachusetts-based attorney in Perkins Coie’s Political Law Group. She represents voters, non-profits, and political committees in voting rights and election litigation.