Going to the polls on Election Day has been a defining civic ritual, but voting procedures developed in an earlier era need to be updated steadily to keep up with changing times. An election bill that’s expected to come before the state Senate today has the potential to provide just such a tune-up.
As approved by the state House of Representative late last year, the bill provides for online voter registration, which allows Massachusetts residents with signatures on file in Registry of Motor Vehicles databases to register to vote via electronic forms. This isn’t just a convenience for would-be voters; it also cuts down on paperwork and could significantly lower the cost of processing new registrations.
The version of the bill that will come before the Senate today would also expand early voting, which helps people who can’t easily vote on Election Day; in addition to filing paperwork for absentee ballots, residents would have an opportunity, including at least some time on a weekend, to show up in person in certain municipal offices to cast their votes. The legislation would also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister, thereby maximizing the chances they’ll get in the habit of voting as soon as they turn 18.
Advocates of the bill — including groups such as the local affiliates of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters — are also pressing state senators for a few amendments. One would allow election-day voter registration, which improves turnout while maintaining the same rules and safeguards as exist for earlier registration. Another would require post-election audits of a small sample of election equipment, which might alert officials to the kind of glitches that would otherwise turn up and undermine voter confidence on subsequent elections. Anyone who’s ever struggled to feed a paper ballot into a finicky machine will appreciate the reassurance that systematic audits would provide.
In a purported effort to improve ballot security, a number of states have enacted tough voter ID laws, and amendments to this effect may well arise in the Senate today. Massachusetts senators shouldn’t take the bait. ID rules are a particular burden on elderly, disabled, and poor residents — or anyone else who is unlikely to have a driver’s license.
Besides, very few documented cases of election fraud involve impersonating voters at the polls. In 2012, Democratic state Representative Stephen “Stat” Smith of Everett pleaded guilty to submitting a number of fraudulent absentee ballots. Last year, a Republican legislative candidate from East Longmeadow pleaded guilty in a different absentee ballot scheme. Neither case would have been prevented by requiring IDs for in-person voting. Massachusetts must take greater advantage of technology to remove barriers to voting, not turn voters away over a phantom problem.