As Massachusetts nears another presidential primary, thousands of residents interested in voting will have to provide proof of identification, find their polling station, and — most important — register before the government-imposed deadline of 20 days before Election Day. According to activists with the New Democracy Coalition in Boston, these small actions combine to create a voter registration system that is outdated and favors the wealthy and politically astute.
Their solution: a statewide database of eligible voters that effectively ends the need for registration. In their preferred system, outlined in legislation sponsored by state Representative Evandro C. Carvalho of Dorchester, voters would have to unregister to opt out of the voting system, rather than the current opt-in system.
Kevin C. Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition and a longtime proponent of civic activism, says a centralized database of all eligible voters would be created and updated using information from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, public colleges, and other government institutions, if the bill is signed. Instead of voters being forced to prove eligibility through registration, they would only need to confirm their identity against an existing list.
In Peterson's proposal, the database would be maintained by the secretary of state. However, in an interview, a spokesman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin expressed skepticism, saying he doubts such a system would be effective or necessary.
There is no current database of eligible voters, outside of the US census data collected every 10 years, according to Massachusetts election officials. So officials said there is no way to accurately determine how many people who can vote are not registering to do so.
A study of automatic voter registration from the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City said such a system could add more than 50 million eligible voters to the rolls across the country, increase accuracy, save money, and curb potential voter fraud.
Peterson also sees a different benefit, he said.
"We feel that voting rights across the country are under attack," said Peterson, a senior fellow at University of Massachusetts Boston who lives in Dorchester.
Peterson referenced the 2013 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. That ruling declared two sections of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional and, thus, loosened federal oversight of state and local governments that had been previously flagged as discriminatory.
Across America, states have reacted to the decision along partisan lines.
At least 10 of the 15 states that were once monitored by the federal government under the 1965 law have passed more restrictive voting laws — most of which involve stricter ID requirements — crafted by Republican legislators, according to the Brennan Center.
On the other hand, historically liberal states like Oregon and California have moved in the opposite direction, enacting laws that make voter registration an explicit government responsibility.
Oregon will roll out its new registration system, similar to the one proposed for Massachusetts by Peterson, during this election cycle. The Oregon plan relies on the state Department of Motor Vehicles to update essential information in a database of eligible voters.
"This bill is about making government work better, about treating citizens as customers, and giving them the service they expect," said Oregon Governor Kate Brown last year, when she signed the bill into law.
Peterson wants Massachusetts to join that effort.
In addition to Carvalho, Peterson has also worked with Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a prominent professor at Harvard Law School and former mentor of President Obama.
Ogletree called the expansion of voter registration a civil rights issue. When voting and voter registration are difficult, he said, the most affected populations are the groups to whom voting has been extended to most recently — women, communities of color, and the poor.
"The people voting in this state have to understand that every single vote matters and that they have to reach out to people, and people should be not be denied about their race or gender, or sexual orientation," Ogletree said.
Also, he argued, the creation of a statewide automatic voter registration system would be an important symbolic step.
Ogletree, who lives in Cambridge, said he is often discouraged because he feels that elected officials reach out to his community more so than others.
"You see the service that we get, and you have to give the same service to a ghetto, a housing project, or even if you go to the eighth, ninth, or 10th floor," of an apartment building, Ogletree said. "That openness has to be available to every single citizen."
However, the spokesman for Galvin said he doubts the new system would have a significant impact. Brian McNiff said there is no evidence that the state's registration laws are unnecessarily arduous or prevent people from getting to the polls. McNiff said in comparison to other states, Massachusetts does well in registering a high proportion of eligible voters.
"The trouble isn't in informing them [to vote], the trouble is them doing it," McNiff said.
While McNiff applauded the state's effort to notify people of upcoming elections and voter registration deadlines, Peterson said he still believes more could be done.
Asked at what level of voter participation would his coalition be satisfied, Peterson answered quickly: “Let’s get it to 100 percent.”