Tuesday’s voter turnout would be a depressing commentary for any city, let alone one with a storied reputation for political engagement. Only 27 percent of the city’s 392,000 registered voters went to the polls. In part that’s because Boston is obviously content with Mayor Marty Walsh, in part because challenger Tito Jackson never made it a competitive mayoral race.
Still, if it were easier to register to vote, more people would probably participate. To that end, Common Cause Massachusetts is pushing for automatic registration. It would work this way: When people interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth, they would, if eligible, automatically be added to the rolls. (The secretary of state could also include other state offices that currently help register voters under the federal Motor Voter Law.)
Ten other states and the District of Columbia have adopted such laws. The first was Oregon, where 230,000 new voters — an increase of about 10 percent — have joined the rolls as a result of that 2015 law. Some 97,000 of them cast a ballot in the 2016 election.
“It is obviously not a panacea, but it is one thing we can do to boost turnout,” says Pam Wilmot, the executive director of the good-government group.
Another idea is same-day voter registration, which would let citizens register at their polling places on Election Day. Secretary of State William F. Galvin says that with proper funding and enough lead time, he could make either system work. Still, he thinks same-day registration would be both cheaper and less of an overall technological and administrative challenge. It would take an extra worker or two per polling place, plus a computer tie-in with the state’s central voter registry, he says. Then an eligible voter could simply show up, register, and vote, all in one Election Day stop.
“From the point of view of a voter, it can’t get any easier than that,” notes Galvin. But implementing either will take some time and planning, and some new dollars, the secretary of state emphasizes.
For her part, Wilmot would like to see both: automatic registration to get as many voters as possible on the rolls, and same-day registration as a fail-safe for those who aren’t registered other ways.
There’s not enough time left in this year’s legislative calendar to properly work through the various issues. Or to decide whether to prioritize one idea over the other, or to move forward with both. But with some 680,000 Massachusetts residents eligible to vote but unregistered, this is a subject the Legislature should dive energetically into next year.