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MASSPIRG and the Election Modernization Coaltion have launched the Early Voting Challenge to highlight the great opportunities early voting offers Massachusetts and encourage state and municipal governments to implement them effectively.
Although Massachusetts is one of the most progressive states in the country, our election system has only recently been the focus of updates and modernization efforts. MASSPIRG is part of the Election Modernization Coalition (EMC), and our advocacy and public education is about making voting more accessible. Recent victories allow for online voter registration and early voting, and we’re now working with the Secretary of State’s Office, as well as cities and towns across the Commonwealth, to ensure both are successfully implemented before the 2016 elections. We’re also pushing the state legislature to adopt automatic voter registration (AVR), a reform passed in other states that would make registration easier and increase participation in our democracy.
Automatic Voter Registration
Democracy should include every citizen; this is a key tenet of the American belief system. Unfortunately, we’re not currently living up to that ideal, as millions of eligible voters are not registered and thus can’t participate in elections. A major problem is that our antiquated voter registration system, which is largely paper-based, has fallen behind the modernization that has made our everyday lives more convenient.
Currently, this system, plagued by inaccuracy and obscurity has left too many eligible voters unregistered (stats taken from Brennan Center for Justice):
- Nationally, one in four eligible citizens is unregistered to vote
- One in eight registrations is invalid or significantly inaccurate.
- National research shows that one in four voters mistakenly believes his or her voter registration will be automatically updated when they change their address.
- The failure of the current system lies in partially its inability to reflect the mobility of modern society. In fact, one third of unregistered voters are those “who had moved and hadn’t re-registered.”
This is a state issue as well. Currently, almost one in five eligible voters are unregistered in Massachusetts. Millenials are especially underrepresented as voters - between 2006 and 2012 voter registration rates varied from 67.5% to as low as 25.5% (MASSVOTE). MASSPIRG believes that in the age of smartphones, our current system is outdated and can be improved to the benefit of voters and election officials alike.
To ensure every eligible citizen’s right to have his or her vote counted, MASSPIRG supports automatic voter registration (AVR). Such a system would automatically identify and register every eligible citizen, establishing a secure voter registration database. Every time an eligible citizen interacts with certain state agencies, such as the RMV, their registration information will be automatically updated. An AVR system would thus make registration portable, so that it moves along with voters when they change their addresses.
Additionally, in this AVR system, adequate safeguards would exist to protect registered voters’ privacy and create data error protections. Moreover, if someone wishes to remain unregistered, they will always have the ability to opt out of the system.
So far, AVR has been passed in four states – California, Oregon, West Virginia and Vermont. A similar policy has just passed the Illinois legislature, thanks in part to our sister organization ILPIRG, and is currently sitting on the governor’s desk. Because AVR reduces the administrative hoops eligible citizens have to jump through to access their ballots, this reform promises striking benefits for voter registration and turnout. For example, elections officials in Oregon estimate that under their new AVR policy, the number of eligible but unregistered citizens will be reduced by 400,000, cutting the state’s total unregistered population in half. Additionally, one national study found that just making registration portable can increase voter turnout by over two percent.
Furthermore, AVR reduces the burden on elections officials, increasing the accuracy of voter rolls and reducing the potential for voter fraud while also decreasing cost. It would augment the integrity of voter rolls by leaving less room for human error such as bad handwriting, and the mishandling of paper forms. Additionally, an AVR system processes more real-time information than our current system, eliminating outdated and duplicate records.
Online Voter Registration
After a several year push by our Coalition, in May 2014, the Massachusetts legislature passed an historic reform of our state’s election laws, including establishing online voter registration, early voting (see below) pre-registration and more.
When the law went into effect on June 23rd 2015, Massachusetts became the 21st state to offer online voter registration. This system makes it easier for people to register and vote, and will hopefully increase voter turnout in the November 2016 election. Additionally, national research suggests that online voter registration will likely reduce costs, enhance government efficiency, and improve the integrity of voter rolls as well as increase voter satisfaction and reduce burdens on election officials.
When registering online, applicants will need to enter identifying information, which will then be verified by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Applicants who lack a driver’s license or RMV identification will be directed to a mail-in version of the application, which will print with all of the applicant’s personal information and will be pre-addressed to the correct local election official.
Online voter registration is a great step in modernizing our elections, increasing the integrity of voter rolls, and removing administrative barriers to voting. However, in order for it to fulfill its potential, it needs to be more widely publicized, so that beneficiaries can take advantage of this incredibly useful tool. MASSPIRG will continue to conduct public education on college campuses and other communities in Massachusetts.
A key part of the Election Modernization law establishes early voting, starting with the November 2016 election. Early voting is an important step for expanding access to our democracy. It gives people whose work or family obligations preclude them from standing in line, or even getting to the polls on Election Day, more opportunities to cast their vote. The newly established early voting period will start eleven business days preceding the election. Within that period, municipalities are required to have at least one voting site open during normal business hours. However, beyond this ‘floor’ outlined in the legislation, cities and towns can do much more to expand the effectiveness of early voting, such as setting additional times and locations for voting.
In order to ensure the effectiveness and success of early voting, the Massachusetts Election Modernization Coalition has issued standards for cities and towns to reach beyond the bill’s floor. We believe these recommendations will ensure that early voting meets its goals: easing access to the ballot for Massachusetts voters, shortening lines at polling locations, and improving the voting experience. Below is an overview of the inaugural Early Voting Challenge, which we issued in the fall of 2015 to all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns, and a fullt list of our Coalition's recommendations.
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