Voting is a Right, not a Privilege: What The Lowell Sun’s Editorial Gets Wrong

It’s no secret that our democracy works best when everybody has a voice, and AVR is a key tool for encouraging participation in the electoral process, as well as a way to safeguard our elections.

A recent editorial in The Lowell Sun offered sharp yet shallow criticisms of Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), arguing that anyone who cares enough about voting should be willing to go through the registration process. This stance ignores the fact that voting is a fundamental right for American citizens, not one contingent on individual civic engagement. Anyone who is eligible to vote should have the ability to do so, without needing to complete excessive paperwork or comply with arbitrary standards of “personal responsibility.” It’s no secret that our democracy works best when everybody has a voice, and AVR is a key tool for encouraging participation in the electoral process, as well as a way to safeguard our elections.

The Lowell Sun’s editorial takes a derisive tone, implying that there is no benefit to adding those who “couldn’t be bothered to register” to the voter rolls. However, we have already seen in states that have implemented AVR like Oregon that this is not the case; of the 230,000 Oregon voters that AVR registered in its first six months, 97,000 went on to vote in the 2016 election. Evidently, a good portion of voters did feel motivated to vote once they were automatically added to the rolls, and AVR gave them the ability to do so. A government of, by, and for the people should want to encourage voting whenever possible instead of burdening citizens with tedious and outdated registration processes. AVR does not unduly “place the responsibility for citizenship squarely on the state” – it simply ensures that the government is fulfilling its duty to hold fair and accessible elections. AVR helps provide access to democracy to everyone.

Adding voters to the rolls also has a larger effect than simply encouraging participation, a fact The Lowell Sun ignores. For example, if a constituent is not registered to vote, they are virtually invisible to their elected officials. By adding their name to the rolls, a previously unavailable channel of communication is opened between representatives and those they represent.

In opposing AVR, the editorial also cites the recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision which upheld the state’s requirement that voters register at least 20 days before an election. The majority opinion asserts that the 20-day cutoff is constitutional because the government clearly communicates the conditions and requirements for registration to the public. The editorial applies this same logic to AVR, arguing that people should be responsible for registering because they have been told many times that it is a prerequisite for voting. Widespread awareness of voting requirements is certainly good, but AVR takes this a step further, facilitating the registration process altogether. Regardless of what citizens know about our (admittedly complicated) registration process, they still deserve the chance to vote. Also, many of the Court’s logistical concerns with same-day voting, such as having a sudden, unmanageable influx of voter registrations right before the election, would be addressed by AVR, which would naturally spread out voter registrations over time and make the process of registering voters far easier for the government.

In addition, AVR is focused on increasing actual voter participation, not bolstering voter turnout statistics. The editorial correctly points out that turnout statistics – calculated as the number of people voting relative to the number of registered voters – will likely decrease, since substantially more people will be added to the pool of registered voters. However, if these statistics are instead calculated as the number of people who vote out of the entire population of eligible voters, they will increase as the raw number of people participating in elections grows. Actual voter turnout has surged in other states that have implemented AVR; for example, voter turnout in Oregon increased by 4% – more than any other state – between 2012 and 2016.

Finally, the editorial completely ignores AVR’s positive impact on election security. With AVR, citizens who are already registered to vote will have their contact information automatically updated with they interact with the RMV or MassHealth. This keeps our rolls much more up-to-date. In Oregon, 265,000 inaccurate addresses were corrected in the central voter database after just six months of using AVR. AVR will also help prevent voter fraud, as the bill will add Massachusetts to the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a system which compares voter registration information to various other state and national databases, checking for inaccuracies and confirming that all registered voters are eligible. ERIC also identifies people who are eligible to vote but not registered, so it helps give more people the chance make their voice heard while protecting against voter fraud.

Currently, 13 states have either adopted AVR or, in the case of North Dakota, have no voter registration to begin with. Elections have continued operating securely in these states, and removing some of the hassles of voter registration has resulted in more, not less, civic engagement. In the United States, the default should be that all eligible citizens can vote. AVR makes this more free and inclusive vision of democracy a reality.