Recent claims against election reform in Massachusetts miss the point. Election reforms are on track to improve the voting experience and expand the electorate. Legislation currently in conference committee seek to expand opportunities to vote, make voter registration more efficient, convenient, and accessible, and better ensure the accuracy of election results.
Possible reforms to be signed into law this year include early voting and online voter registration, which passed the Massachusetts House and Senate this legislative session, pre-registration for 16 year-olds and post-election audits of voting machines, which passed the Senate this session and the House last session, as well as Election Day registration, permanent voter registration and inactive voting reform which passed the Senate this session.
Early voting in elections has important benefits now enjoyed by voters in 32 other states and Washington D.C. While it has an insignificant effect on voter turnout, it increases the number of options voters have to cast a ballot. In this era of increasingly busy and complex lives, we should provide greater flexibility for voters to participate in our democracy. In 2012, some 32 million voters across the country cast early ballots. Moreover, early voting relieves congestion on Election Day, making elections more manageable for election workers and voters alike. It was for these reasons that the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which recently published a report after six months of surveying election administration nationwide, included early voting in its list of top recommendations.
Election Day registration, on the other hand, is proven to increase participation in our elections. In 2012, five of the ten states with the highest turnout had some form of Election Day registration (Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin). Turnout was on average 12% higher in states that offered the option to register on Election Day compared to states that did not. Data from academic studies from 2002 and 2008 indicate that Election Day registration increases turnout by approximately 7% when controlling for other factors.
According to a 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States, 51 million or one in four eligible voters are not registered to vote, and approximately 24 million or one in eight voter registrations are significantly inaccurate or no longer valid. Election Day registration allows eligible voters greater flexibility in registering to vote, prevents disenfranchisement due to inaccuracies on the voter rolls that are beyond voters' control, and helps election administrators maintain more accurate registrations. It also greatly reduces the use of provisional ballots a significant percentage of which go uncounted, according to the U.S. Election Administration Commission, and causes burdensome paperwork on Election Day that increases poll lines and discourages voters. It costs very little to implement and thirty years of experience has shown virtually no instances of abuse.
Similarly, online voter registration, pre-registration for 16 year-olds, and permanent (or portable) registration modestly boost voter turnout and prevent registration inaccuracies that result in disenfranchisement on Election Day. Online voter registration allows voters to register and modify their registrations online. Permanent registration would enable voters to register just once and have their registrations automatically modified by a combination of government databases if they move within the state. The Central Voter Registry would regularly communication with the USPS Change of Address Database and the Registry of Motor Vehicles to keep registrations up-to-date. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration also included online voter registration and permanent registration in its top recommendations.
All of these pro-voter reforms have a real chance of final passage this session. If passed together, Massachusetts would become a national leader in expanding opportunities to vote and in bringing election laws into the 21st century.