Cynthia S. Creem
Assistant Senate majority leader, Newton Democrat
As the state senator representing Brookline, Newton, and Wellesley, I count advancing voting rights and voter access as among my highest priorities. This session, I have filed a bill to create an automatic voter registration system for the 21st century. I believe this proposal deserves special attention and swift enactment, in time for the 2018 election cycle.
Voting is the most direct way citizens express their political preferences, and Massachusetts ought to be doing everything possible to promote participation and reduce administrative barriers. We took a good step forward in 2014, by adopting “early voting” for general elections, so people can now vote within the few weeks leading up to election day.
However, a huge administrative hurdle is still tripping up far too many otherwise eligible voters: registration. According to Census data, there are approximately 680,000 unregistered eligible voters in Massachusetts. This bill would change that.
Automatic voter registration registers voters or updates their information while they are interacting with a state agency like the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth.
Since these agencies already gather and electronically store the same personal data needed to register a voter (name, proof of residence, date of birth, affirmation of citizenship) it will be more efficient to register voters electronically, asking if they choose to “opt-out.” My bill makes no changes to eligibility requirements, but it will remove the bureaucratic and duplicative paperwork.
Moving to automatic voter registration may seem minor, but ten other states, red and blue, have adopted the system. In 2016, Oregon successfully registered 230,000 residents and 265,000 inaccurate addresses were corrected in the first six months. Of those registered, nearly 100,000 voted in the November 2016 election.
Automatic voter registration is the next step in voting rights. Adding eligible voters to the voting rolls makes our elections more free, fair, and accessible. Automating our system will also reduce costs in the long run and make voting rolls more accurate and secure. In a 21st-century democracy, we should do everything we can to make sure every eligible voter can exercise his or her Constitutional right to vote.
Arlington resident, member of the Republican State Committee
I have always enjoyed voting. What can I say? I’m a political junkie. It has always bothered me that a sizable proportion of the population chooses not to engage in elections. Being active in voter turnout efforts, I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to get out the vote. This challenge gets even harder in local elections. But the task of increasing turnout would become more difficult if the Commonwealth has to deal with automatic voter registration.
Many supporters of automatic voter registration claim we need to help those who simply are underserved and can’t get registered. But once you actually look at the numbers, that argument goes by the wayside. In the 2008 national election, only 4.2 percent of those not registered claimed they didn’t know where or how to register to vote. That means nearly 96 percent of those them knew exactly how or where to go if they wanted to register. Some reported they faced issues of disability or language barriers. But 50 percent were simply not interested or didn’t feel their vote would make a difference, and a sizable amount missed the deadline.
What we really need is increased funding for registration drives and to support the efforts of non-partisan groups to increase turnout. Almost every day during the 2016 election, you could find a voter registration drive on a college campus.
All automatic voter registration seems to do is register people who don’t want to vote. This is hardly a remedy for low voter turnout. It is worth noting that early voting, another of the recent election reforms put forward in the name of increased access, does not increase turnout, according to a Boston Globe story. The only real effect of early voting is to allow people to vote with less information than those who vote on election day.
Much like early voting, automatic voter registration would not bring those who sit at home on election day to the ballot box. If anything, I believe it would drive down the percentage of those who do vote. Like the old saying goes: “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at email@example.com.