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The Feb. 10th deadline to register to vote in the Massachusetts state primary has passed, leaving many eligible voters, once again, out of the democratic process.
A full three weeks before Primary Day, this deadline, in an age when all kinds of hugely important information is transmitted in a fraction of a second, seems outdated at best. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014, 4.1 million Americans who tried to register to vote for that year’s election were prevented from doing so by registration deadlines. Additionally, another 1.9 million Americans could not add themselves to the voter rolls because they did not know where or how to register, according to the good government organization Common Cause. While these statistics focus on the national level, they speak to a fundamental barrier existing in most states, including ours. In order to modernize our electoral system, remove this antiquated barrier, and bolster democracy, we need to establish automatic voter registration (AVR) in Massachusetts.
A bill pending in the Massachusetts Legislature, HB 3937, sponsored by Rep. Jay Kaufman, would launch AVR, and it deserves swift review by lawmakers.
At a recent public hearing, our organization, as well as Common Cause, MassVOTE and the League of Women Voters all testified in favor.
The concept is simple: automatic voter registration is a process by which state governments register citizens to vote using relevant eligibility information already maintained by government agencies.
By reducing the steps and actions required on the voter’s part to register, we remove unneeded and outdated barriers to voting. The Brennan Center for Justice notes: “Many states have already taken one important step in this direction: adopting electronic, paperless, and seamless registration at agencies, and reaping substantial benefits. By making this shift [to AVR], we can move away from a messy system rife with pitfalls for voters and election officials alike, and toward a more streamlined and accurate system”
On Feb.10, President Obama addressed the importance of AVR in a speech to the Illinois state Legislature, stating, “Senator [Andy] Manar and Representative [Robyn] Gabel have bills that would automatically register every eligible citizen to vote when they apply for a driver’s license. [It] would protect the fundamental right of everybody— Democrats, Republicans, Independents, senior citizens, folks with disabilities, the men and women of our military— it would make sure that it was easier for them to vote and have their vote counted. And as one of your constituents, I think you should pass that legislation right away.”
The president’s statement echoes a growing sentiment throughout the U.S. that more must be done to accommodate the rights of eligible voters. In 2015, bills establishing AVR were passed into law in both California and Oregon. Massachusetts is one of 27 states currently considering bills on automatic voter registration.
As in any presidential election year, we are already in the thick of debates on a variety of crucial issues, and the outcome of the presidential election has vast implications. But only 54 percent of all eligible citizens came out to vote in the 2012 presidential election; and that low figure is due in no small part to the barriers in our election registration system. Simply put, out of date and inefficient voter registration is causing citizens to lose the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
Here in the Bay State, we are proud of our innovations, our democratic traditions, and our passion for politics. If we establish AVR, we will be enhancing all three. We hope the Legislature will make quick work of this bill, and that automatic voter registration will soon be the law of our land.
Janet Domenitz, an Alpine Street resident, is the executive director of MASSPIRG. Ian Barber, a Mellen Street resident, is a policy intern at MASSPIRG.
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