By Krista Kanos
November 3, 2011
A local legislator is working with other lawmakers and good government groups to have Massachusetts join eight other states in allowing eligible voters to register on election day.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, and representatives of MassVote, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters testified in support of election day registration at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Election Laws yesterday.
“It’s estimated that it would increase voter participation by 5 percent,” said Sara Brady, policy director of MassVote. “It means a lot to those people. In 2008 (for the presidential election), more than 10,000 people (in Massachusetts) missed the voter-registration deadline, and those are people who wanted to vote.”
Eldridge’s bill, titled An Act to Modernize our Voter Registration System, includes additional provisions he hopes would increase voter participation by allowing 16- to 17-year-olds to register to vote before their 18th birthday and allowing online registration for people already on file with the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
“Last year there were 2 million people eligible to vote who didn’t vote,” Eldridge said. “I’m sure we all have talked to someone who went to the polls to vote and came back without voting for some technical reason.”
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, said the legislation would mostly affect people such as new renters in Boston who often miss registration deadlines and go to the polls only to be turned away.
“Election-day registration (results in) the highest percentage increase in turnout of any reform that you could pass,” said Wilmot, noting Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Iowa have same-day registration.
Linda Freedman, elections and voting specialist for the League of Women Voters, said Minnesota, Maine and Wisconsin had average turnouts 12 percent higher than the national average and election-day registration has worked in Maine for 30 years.
Maine has recently joined a number of states cutting back on same-day registration and other regulations aimed at making voting easier. Seven states already require voters to present valid photo ID at the polls. Opponents, mostly Republican lawmakers in other states, say such laws make it easier for voter fraud.
Freedman disputed the claims.
“Maine’s current governor overturned same-day registration on charges of voter fraud, but it was investigated by the secretary of state and found to be false,” she said.
Voter fraud, which Freedman called a “red herring,” is the main argument against election-day registration, but she said independent studies have found that voter fraud is as low in states with election-day registration as it is in states without it.
In 2007, Creem submitted a same-day registration bill that passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, but the Legislature adjourned in July 2008 without a final vote from the House.
The committee has until March 21 to act on the legislation, at which time they would give it a favorable or unfavorable review or send it for further study.
Only three committee members were present as a result of conflicting formal sessions for the House and the Senate. But Senate Chairman Barry Finegold, D-Andover, was receptive to the legislation, agreeing with many of Wilmot’s points and questioning why Massachusetts doesn’t have election-day registration already.