Massachusetts Legislature must pass automatic voter registration

By William Keve

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(Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian)

Politics have always permeated everyday life, but beginning with the presidential campaign of 2015-2016, this influence has become more apparent in the media. Athletes, entertainers, journalists and educators, mostly on the left, have embraced vibrant political speech. Conversations that used to center only on hip-hop or the NFL are now more frequently arguments about Colin Kaepernick’s demonstrations or the messages in Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics. Despite this, youth voter turnout has been in decline in presidential elections since 2004.

Tuesday was National Voter Registration Day, and it was encouraging to see efforts to register students on campus were backed by political student groups such as MASSPIRG. I spoke with Yuval Abraham, the head of MASSPIRG’s democracy campaign that is focusing on automatic voter registration this term. “We’re trying to show the student body that they can push automatic voter registration reform through and that they can make voting easier. That’s what the democracy campaign does every semester, and AVR is the best way to do it,” Abraham, a junior economics major, said.

Why do we bother to register to vote at all? In many countries like Italy, Denmark and the Czech Republic, every citizen of age is automatically registered and able to vote. Because of this, and other factors, these countries and many others embarrass the United States in voter turnout.

White voters, elderly voters, wealthy voters, educated voters and highly partisan voters in the United States are all shown to vote at similar rates as in the countries mentioned above. The discrepancy is in the youth demographic; barely 40 percent voted in 2016. Duly, Americans above 60 years old were 30 percent more likely to vote. While senior citizens have been registered for decades and don’t face the needless bureaucratic hurdle of registration, young people do. Whether or not one would admonish millennials for failing to register, the data show that in order to making voting more popular, it needs to be made more easily accessible.

Several proposals to raise turnout have been made, many of them with bipartisan support. America could make its election day a national holiday—or at least move it to a weekend. A European-like paid leave policy would also make it easier for workers to choose election day as a break. States could follow Oregon’s example and adopt vote-by-mail, which increased voter turnout by 10 percent over previous normative elections. Controversially, many states would like to loosen or resist the implementation of strict voter ID laws, but that partisan argument isn’t even relevant to the bipartisan solution currently being considered by the Massachusetts State Legislature: automatic voter registration.

To be clear, automatic voter registration (AVR) is not quite as magical as it sounds. It’s not parallel to European automatic systems, where registration is compulsory and done without any effort from the voter. With AVR, voters can opt-out for any reason if they do not want to register, but they are always provided with an opportunity to automatically register when they move, apply for a license, or in any other interactions with a state agency. Voters still have the ability to register the old-fashioned way at a town clerk’s office, but it is now unnecessary.

The major benefit besides increasing turnout—which AVR has been proven to do—is to cut administrative costs associated with voter registration. When young people register, they do it at times that make sense for them; namely, right before an election they care about. This poses a huge problem for town clerk’s offices and other agencies. The massive rush of incoming applications requires designated staff to handle it, but demand quickly wanes when elections aren’t impending. This is horribly inefficient, and theoretically hamstrings an agency’s ability to find a fraudulent application. AVR incentivizes voters to register at seemingly random times during the year. A new voter getting his driver’s license renewed is as likely to occur in March as it is in October, the month that clerks scramble to process new registrations.

A report estimated that 700,000 eligible Massachusetts voters are not registered; all of them should be. Massachusetts is a better place when our representatives are more responsive to their constituents. House Bill 3937, which would institute automatic voter registration, has popular support from at least half of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Senate. That likely leaves the fate of democracy in Massachusetts up to governor Charlie Baker, and hopefully, he will sign automatic voter registration into law well in advance of elections in 2018.

William Keve is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]