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Guest Column: Voting Reform in Massachusetts

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New England has a long, proud history of citizen participation; the town meeting is still alive and well in western Massachusetts, as elsewhere in the Northeast. Given this history of citizen engagement, it may be surprising to realize that some New England states lag behind other parts of the country in encouraging voting.

Nowadays we hear of voter suppression, a current problem in many states. We think of government-issued photo IDs; the obstruction of third-party voter registration drives organized by groups like the League of Women Voters; even of harassment of voters. But states can make it hard for people to vote just by limiting opportunities to register and to vote.

Maine and Vermont are among 27 states with unrestricted absentee voting; in the other New England states, only specific categories of excuses make voters eligible for absentee ballots.

“Early voting” often means in-person voting using an (unrestricted) absentee ballot, as in Vermont and Maine. In Vermont, one can vote within 45 days before a primary or general election or 20 days before a municipal election. In Maine one can vote whenever absentee ballots are available, up to the Thursday before an election. In Massachusetts, the House recently passed a bill which would provide early voting (from the 11th to the 2nd day before voting day), but only in the case of presidential primaries and elections. Last week the Senate approved early voting from the 10th to the second business days before any federal or state primary or election. (These are not absentee ballots, which would still be available only in limited circumstances.) Some weekend hours are mandated; localities may add evening hours.

Both online registration and online verification of one’s registration status are part of the Massachusetts reform. These are intended to improve efficiency and reliability and cut costs, as well as provide convenience to voters. Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island already offer online verification of registration. Nationally, 14 states have implemented online registration; in New England, only Connecticut has passed online registration.

The Massachusetts Senate approved same-day registration, as in Maine, New Hampshire and (in limited circumstances) Rhode Island. It also approved the preregistration of 16- and 17-year- olds. In other New England states and currently in Massachusetts, only those who will be 18 by or on Election Day can preregister at 17. The Senate bill would make voting easier and quicker by ending the need for checkout tables at polling places, and easing the conditions under which voters are declared inactive.

Expanded early voting and Election Day registration, as well as increased use of electronic recordkeeping, are objectives of Voter Registration Modernization (VRM) plans. The League of Women Voters’ VRM goals include expanded opportunities for online registration, and permanent and portable statewide voter registration through the use of such a statewide computerized voter registration list. (Under the current system, voters must reregister every time they move to a new city or town within the state.)

Congratulations to the Massachusetts Legislature for the improvements in the two bills! Concerned citizens should urge support for the fuller Senate version of voter reform so that Massachusetts, with its long tradition of local participation in government, can join its neighbors in election and registration reforms, and perhaps even play a leading role.•

Susan Millinger is a member of the Amherst League of Women Voters.

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