Editorial: Streamlining the voting process in Massachusetts



Last modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

At a time when some states are restricting access to the polls, following the demise of the Voting Rights Act, Massachusetts is moving to empower voters. Last week, the state Senate agreed to reforms that hold the potential to increase participation in elections and modernize how voting takes place.

The bill goes now to a conference committee with representatives of both the Senate and House, whose members have passed similar legislation.

We think state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, the Senate’s majority leader and future president, is right to declare that his chamber’s vote last Thursday represents the most significant election reform in two decades.

As with the “motor voter” legislation in the early 1990s, which allowed voters to sign up through the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the new legislation is designed to streamline and simplify the process of voting.

By opening the process, these reforms can bring more people into the essential decisions citizens make about how their state and local communities are led.

We urge the conferees to bring the best elements of both bills together swiftly and enact these democratic gains.

One of the most meaningful reforms is to allow an eligible voter to come to the polls on Election Day, perhaps awakened to the significance of the date by news coverage or political rallies, and register on the spot. Maine, New Hampshire and seven other states already allow that. In the Internet age, where eligibility can be verified immediately, there is no longer any need to require voters to register at least 20 days ahead of Election Day.

In a related change, the secretary of state would be directed, under the Senate’s version of the bill, to create an online registration portal by August, and then another portal that would include the software and databases needed not just to register voters but also to verify their eligibility.

Under another provision, the Senate’s bill would allow people in Massachusetts to vote early — again, a practice already in other states. The bill would allow voters, starting in 2016, to come to their polling places up to 10 days ahead of a scheduled vote. That change can increase voter participation and, in so doing, improve the integrity of the system.

Often people grouse about low turnouts at elections, particularly special elections. The more people who participate, the better.

And speaking of participation, the Senate bill calls for allowing those 16 and older to pre-register to vote. When they turn 18, and became eligible to vote, they would be automatically signed up and ready to exercise their franchise as citizens.

Deeper in its pages, the Election Laws Reform Bill would set up a task force that would examine a host of electoral issues, including tracking fraud, turnout, ways to reduce congestion at polling sites and the costs of running elections. The group would report its findings in early 2017.

On the municipal level, the Senate’s bill takes a burden off cities and towns to conduct a yearly census of residents. Those lists have been used to identify who should come off a community’s voter list. Instead, voters would be removed only after missing four federal elections and then failing to respond to a written notification warning them that they are poised to be taken off the list of active voters.

And though it would affect few voters, one element of the Senate bill seeks to empower citizens during primary elections who are enrolled in political parties that have not advanced candidates. Responding to a constituent’s 2012 complaint from Franklin County, Rosenberg added an amendment that would allow such a voter to select a ballot of his or her choosing. That right is already extended to unenrolled voters.

An engaged — and active — electorate is vital to democracy. These reforms knock dust off the gears that move our governments, while adding timely new ones.


 


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