Beyond the Ballot Box: How Election Day Registration Strengthens Our Democracy

Massachusetts’ 20-day registration deadline is an unnecessary barrier to political participation. It exacerbates inequality and suppresses the kind of participatory and representative democracy that we have long talked about in the Commonwealth, but that has never actualized. Now, it is time we remove this dated deadline.

For many Americans, the right to vote has never been guaranteed. The right of all citizens to cast a ballot is not explicitly enshrined in our Constitution and it has been denied to various groups throughout our history: the Constitution allowed states to deny citizens the right to vote on the basis of race and gender, exclusions like procedural laws targeted immigrants in the North, and literacy requirements disenfranchised Black voters in the South. No region of the U.S. has been exempted from this history. Universal suffrage is a democratic ideal upon which our nation was not founded, and for which we are still fighting.[1]

And it is particularly challenged today. Since the 2010 elections, thirteen states have enacted laws restricting voter registration, eight have cut back on early voting, and fifteen have instituted restrictive voter ID laws – all policies that suppress the votes of marginalized groups and build upon existing hurdles to voter participation.[2][3] For instance, states across the map including Massachusetts continue to deny incarcerated people serving felony convictions the right to vote, disproportionately affecting communities of color. Whether by explicit laws or by institutionalized barriers to participation, would-be participants in our democracy are disenfranchised.

Massachusetts’ 20-day registration deadline is one of those barriers, and it is time we remove it.

Maura Healey thinks so, too. The Massachusetts Attorney General was one of many who testified before the Election Laws Committee last Thursday, June 20th to remove this dated deadline by enacting Election Day Registration. “Voting rights are civil rights,” the Attorney General said, and “we need to do all we can to reduce barriers to participation in our elections and ensure the ballot is fully accessible to all eligible voters.”

Numerous other individuals and groups echoed this call to improve access to the ballot and highlighted the various ways that the Commonwealth’s registration deadline exacerbates our nation’s history of political inequality. In written testimony, George Washington University Professor Elizabeth Rigby called attention to the income gap in voter participation. As of 2014, “wealthier Americans are more than 65 percent more likely to vote than low-income citizens.” Rigby’s research shows that “Election Day Registration is the primary strategy states have to help eliminate the registration barrier, reduce income bias in voting, and bolster participation in elections by low-income communities.” In short, EDR, can “make participation in elections more equal and ensure that low-income Americans have a voice in our democracy.”

The participation gap – largely a product of historical inequalities and barriers to participation like the registration deadline – is not limited to socio-economic status. Rashaan Hall of the ACLU highlighted that the people most often disenfranchised due to the registration deadline are “renters who have recently moved, people working multiple jobs, people with disabilities, and people with less reliable transportation,” which means the deadline is “definitely a racial equity issue.”

But the registration deadline does more than disenfranchise those who miss it. It also forces registered voters with common errors in their registration to cast provisional ballots – ballots which often go uncounted and create additional work for elections officials. EDR, however, dramatically reduces the need for provisional ballots by allowing people to fix errors in their registration at the polls. In Iowa, for example, the use of provisional ballots dropped from 15,000 to 5,000 after EDR was implemented – a 67% decline. [4]

Professor Joseph Anthony of Oklahoma State University also submitted written testimony to this point. “EDR,” he wrote, “acts as a simple safeguard in a system where human, administrative mistakes do happen.” In 2018, for example, “over 100,000 voters did not appear on local voter registration lists due to a ‘printing error.’ These voters were still able to register and cast their ballots, however, due to a state law that allowed for a form of same-day voter registration.” Thus, EDR provides a “fail-safe” against issues with or threats to the accuracy of registration lists, allowing all eligible voters to register or re-register and cast a ballot that will count. And by reducing the need for provisional balloting, EDR makes elections easier to administer and more cost-effective.

When an eligible, registered voter arrives at the polls only to discover errors in their registration or that they have been purged from the rolls, that’s not just an issue about costs. In a robust and sustainable democracy, no eligible voter should be turned away or worry that their voice won’t be counted. It’s hard enough for many to get to the polls, to feel their vote matters, and to believe that our collective government works for them. That turned-away voter, simply put, is less likely to return.

Thus, any given barrier to participation or negative experience at the polls has an impact that extends beyond an individual’s ability to cast a ballot in any given election. Political science researchers who have long lamented the decline in political participation and civic engagement emphasize that participation is a norm. This means that a voter’s ability to cast a ballot and their experience at the ballot box will affect how that voter behaves in our democracy in other ways – whether they will read a local newspaper or attend a community meeting, and whether they will act and feel invested in the common good.[5]

And it also means that individuals are more likely to do what other people do, and what they perceive others expect of them – so any Americans’ political participation or lack thereof influences that of their entire community. [6] A voter turned away may mean that neither that voter, nor members of their community, will participate and be invested in our shared democracy.

Thus, Massachusetts’ registration deadline is not only about those individual voters it turns away; it’s about their entire communities that need a voice and representation, and it’s about redressing cycles of inequality in America. [7]

We must pass Election Day Registration in Massachusetts. The crisis of inequality, apathy, and individualism in American democracy is too great – we must push back against the erosion of our democratic institutions and fight to create the kind of participatory and representative democracy that we have long talked about in the Commonwealth, but that has never actualized. Massachusetts has earned its title of “the cradle of democracy” in many ways throughout history. For instance, in 1778 Bay Staters were some of the few who rejected racial exclusions and property qualifications to suffrage.[8] But we know today that should never have been a conversation – the right of all citizens to vote in a democracy should be a given. And because it is not, it is imperative that we do all that we can to protect it. We must lead this democracy movement that is, as Frances Moore Lappé wrote in her testimony, “making significant strides to redress our nation’s history of voter suppression and strengthen our democratic institutions.”

 


[1] See Alex Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books, 2009).

[2] New Voting Restrictions in America, Brennan Center for Justice (2019). https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america

[3] Daniel Smith, “When Florida Rolled Back Early Voting, Minorities Were Especially Affected.” https://scholars.org/brief/when-florida-rolled-back-early-voting-minorities-were-especially-affected

[4] Millions Go to the Polls, Demos: https://www.demos.org/policy-briefs/millions-polls-same-day-registration

[5] See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

[6] Alan Gerber and Todd Rogers, “Descriptive Social Norms and Motivation to Vote: Everybody’s Voting and so Should You.” The Journal of Politics 71, no. 1 (2009): 178-191.

[7] Joe Soss, “How America’s Engorged Prison and Surveillance System Threatens Civic Trust and Democracy.” https://scholars.org/brief/how-americas-engorged-prison-and-surveillance-system-threatens-civic-trust-and-democracy

[8] Though the ratified state constitution would ultimately maintain property requirements.