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A call for automatic voter registration

Advocates say changes to process will increase participation, lower costs

Karen Morales | 11/15/2017, 10:32 a.m.
Activists from the Election Modernization Coalition, a legislative advocacy group, are urging Massachusetts lawmakers to adopt automatic voter registration, a ...
Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE speaks at press conference in front of the State House. Banner photo

Activists from the Election Modernization Coalition, a legislative advocacy group, are urging Massachusetts lawmakers to adopt automatic voter registration, a streamlined process for eligible voters in local and national elections.

The coalition is led by Common Cause Massachusetts, the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, MASSPIRG, MassVOTE, the Massachusetts Voter Table and Progressive Massachusetts.

“Passing AVR will remove barriers and make it more efficient, cost-effective, accurate and secure, as well as register more voters,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Coalition Massachusetts, speaking at a press event last week in front of the State House.

In the proposed system, individuals who go through state agencies such as the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth would automatically be registered to vote unless they decline, according to Wilmot.

Currently, registering to vote is a separate process done by mail, online or in person at a RMV or municipal election office.

Wilmot said that an automatic registration system would be particularly helpful for military families who move around a lot and may not have the time or resources to regularly re-register to vote.

In addition, the new system could help break down barriers for marginalized groups.

“Having to register disproportionately affects our most disenfranchised communities,” said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE.“We strongly believe AVR in Massachusetts will increase voting participation and turnout while continuing to modernize our election electoral process.”

An automatic voting registration can also save money and time by decreasing the amount of paperwork to process.

“AVR electronically connects these agencies together and would be a tenth of the cost in terms of processing time and energy,” said Wilmot.

Representative Peter Kocot of Northampton is the initiative’s House sponsor. “My great hope is we come back after the new year and this is one of the first bills we act on,” he said at last week’s press conference.

So far, the legislation has passed in 10 states, both red and blue. In Oregon, the first state to implement AVR, 230,000 voters registered in its first six months, and more than 265,000 inaccurate registrations were updated.

As many as 700,000 eligible people in Massachusetts could be added to the voting rolls with AVR, according to a press release from Common Cause Coalition Massachusetts.

“It’s a simple change with big impact,” said Wilmot.

AVR can integrate previously marginalized individuals into the participatory democracy of election seasons, advocates say.

“When campaigns are reaching out to voters, if people are not on the voter rolls, they are invisible to candidates,” said Jonathan Cohn, a member of Progressive Massachusetts. “Their ideas, their concerns, and what they want to see in the future won’t be heard.”

The legislation is endorsed by 53 organizations including environmental, civil rights, consumer, community, labor, and good government groups.

“Massachusetts is the cradle of liberty, where U.S. democracy started,” said Wilmot. “But we shouldn’t be a museum. We should be constantly innovating.”