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Massachusetts trails other states in voting reform efforts

Lost among the list of winners and losers in the November election was a lesser noted issue: Massachusetts, considered a progressive state in most matters, is behind the national curve when it comes to voter friendly laws and procedures.

While a majority of the other states allow early voting and “no-fault” absentee balloting, Massachusetts does not. Even the state website designed to help voters find their polling place falls behind the usefulness of similar aids elsewhere.

Voting rights proponents say these and other archaic voting procedures led to unnecessarily long lines and delays at polling places in Boston, Worcester and Springfield.

“There are things that could happen that could solve a lot of these problems,” said Whitney Taylor, field director of American Civil Libertis Union of Massachusetts.

“For example, early voting — a lot of states start Friday, Saturday, Sunday, even the day before — or the ability of same-day voter registration,” said Taylor. “That’s a law in many other states.”

Massachusetts saw a record turnout this November, with 3,184,196, voters — 73 percent of those registered — casting ballots. According to Avi Green, executive director of MassVote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization for voter reform, although most were able to vote quickly, some districts saw lines as long as two hours.

Green discounts reports that the lines resulted from voters taking extra time navigating a series of ballot questions, noting longer lists of ballot questions did not create lines in previous elections.

Instead, he blamed Massachusetts’ cumbersome election procedures, particularly confusion for some about where to vote.

Green said that Massachusetts’ “WhereDoIVoteMA.org” website, which allows voters to enter their address to find the nearest polling place, exacerbated the problem. The site allows you to find the closest polling place to where you live.

But the website is not connected to voter registration records. Green said because many people — especially younger voters — have moved since they registered to vote, the website is “essentially useless” when voters plug in their latest address.

According to the non-profit Pew Center on States, 41 states provide look-up services that give individuals their registered polling site.

Massachusetts, along with California, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Delaware, Vermont, Maine and Hawaii, does not provide the service.

“You can put in your name and date of birth, and they’ll tell you where to go to vote,” Green said of the majority of websites.

The Pew Center also graded the states on their election websites.

Massachusetts was one of the 12 states that got a “needs improvement” — the lowest of all possible scores for look-up tools and usability.

Pew recommended a list of improvements, including steps to better identify the date absentee applications must be submitted, as 39 states do; provide voting information for students and people with disabilities, as 36 states offer, and tutorials for filling out the ballot, like 38 other states.

Green blamed the confusion about polling places for the crush of calls city and town halls faced from people trying to figure out where to vote.

According to the ACLU’s Taylor, phones lines in Springfield were busy as early as 7 a.m.

“The city had a phone line and a website up, but the problem was, the phone lines were busy all day, and there was no WiFi or laptops set up at the polling places,” she said.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a non- partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to accountable government, said her group received 2,500 calls from voters who needed help finding their polling place.

Wilmot also said Worcester voters uncertain about their polling place had to stand in one long line to get the information, then get to the back of the line to vote.

Green said having that information available online would save the state resources. “It would save money,” he said. “You’d need less personnel on Election Day, and a lot of cities and towns have to hire extra people on Election Day just to answer the phones.” November’s election saw other problems.

Wilmot said two precincts in Springfield ran out of ballots. “Law requires that you have enough ballots for everyone that is registered to vote in the precinct, but because the ballot was twice as long, they bought half as much.” Wilmot said the same thing happened in Boston.

“They got in big trouble,” she said.

Green said other election laws specific to Massachusetts cause problems and raise costs each election.

According to MassVote Massachusetts is the only state that requires voters to check out after they cast their ballots by giving their name and address to a second set of poll workers.

Massachusetts also is alone in requiring a police presence at every polling place, which can cost as much as all of the other poll workers combined, according to the MassVote analysis.

“The expensive police detail and the misallocation of poll workers — all required by archaic state law — mean that city and town election officials lack the flexibility and the resources to put more people on the tasks that need doing most, like helping people vote,” the group’s review said.

Wilmot said another rule unique to Massachusetts is the state’s handling of the inactive list, which she said was probably the biggest cause of long lines. Voters can wind up on the list simply by failing to return a local census form.

“No other state has this census form,” she said.

There have been attempts at improving the state’s voting process.

The Election Laws Reform bill of 2012, passed in the House last May, would have enacted some key changes, mandating post-election hand counts to ensure machines are working, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register so they are ready when they turn 18, and improving training of election officers.

Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, said he was confident the bill would pass next session.

“I think having audits is a really good thing, and I also think allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register is also a positive thing to encourage younger people to get involved and vote,” he said.

Finegold also supports in-person early voting, which would allow certain polling locations to open prior to Election Day.

“Other states have it, I think we should have it. Anything that will cause more people to be involved in the process of voting I would say is a good thing,” he said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states allow early voting, and 27 accommodate no-fault absentee voting that allows voters to file absentee ballots without detailed criteria. Eight states allow same-day voter registration.

Common Cause has also proposed reforming the inactive voter process and establishing early voting.

Wilmot said the group is also pursuing no- fault absentee voting.

That change would require would require several steps of legislative and voter approval that would take at least five years to take effect.

Taylor, of ACLU-Massachusetts, said her organization also supports early voting.

Green said he was hopeful that the Legislature would continue to support voting reform.

“The State House has shown tremendous leadership in this under Speaker DeLeo and the two most recent election laws chairmen, Aaron Michlewitz and Michael Moran,” he said.

“They both moved forward pretty comprehensive reform agendas,” he said.

“The question mark will be the state Senate. The decision will rest with Senate leadership.”

Wilmot said she too is hoping to see more reforms next session, which would build on the state’s strength: its non-partisan voting system.

“I think we certainly have not been proactive, we’re behind the times in many of our laws and procedures, yet our administration of elections is generally competent. It’s non-partisan, it is people who want to do a good job,” she said.

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