Illinois this week became the 10th state to adopt an automatic voter registration law, and election reform advocates in Massachusetts are using the news to call on Bay State lawmakers to approve similar legislation.
The law signed by Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner after unanimous passage in the Legislature there “creates more accessible and secure elections by automatically registering voters unless they opt out of the program,” members of the Election Modernization Coalition said in a statement.
“The new law will add roughly one million new eligible voters to the voter rolls,” said the statement, signed by Pam Wilmot of Common Cause Massachusetts, Meryl Kessler of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Beth Huang of Mass Voter Table, Janet Domenitz of MASSPIRG, Cheryl Clyburn Crawford of MassVote and Jonathan Cohn of Progressive Massachusetts.
“Similar laws in other states have been proven to increase turnout and make elections more secure by modernizing the voter registration process. It is a common sense and long overdue reform.”
The coalition backs automatic voter registration bills filed by Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, and Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, (H 2091, S 373). Under the proposals, state agencies like the Registry of Motor Vehicles would transmit a person’s name, age, residence and citizenship information to municipal boards of registrars within five days of collecting it.
Worcester Sen. Harriette L. Chandler and Rep. James J. O’Day are among the co-sponsors of Creem’s bill, and Reps. O’Day, Daniel M. Donahue, Mary S. Keefe, Harold P. Naughton Jr., and John J. Mahoney are among the co-sponsors or Kocot’s.
“As the cradle of liberty, Massachusetts should lead the way towards removing unnecessary barriers for voting and ensuring that every Bay Stater has a voice in our democracy,” the coalition said.
The bills would allow people to opt out if they did not wish to register, and would do away with the current process where people wishing to register to vote must first fill out a form with their local elections officers. Similar legislation (H 2080), sponsored by Rep. Evandro Carvalho, D-Roxbury, would also include colleges and universities as part of the automatic voter registration system. Donahue is listed as a co-sponsor on that bill, as well.
As of February, there were 4,486,849 registered voters in Massachusetts, according to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office. Wilmot earlier this year estimated that as many as 700,000 eligible Massachusetts residents — about equal to the population of Boston — were not registered to vote.
A record high number of ballots were cast in last year’s presidential election, with 3,378,801 voters participating for nearly 75 percent turnout. But the state has experienced numerous other low-turnout elections. In the state primary election last September, only 8.84 percent of eligible voters, or 386,174 people, went to the polls. Galvin at the time attributed the low turnout to few contested races and a lack of statewide contests.
Automatic voter registration is a relatively new idea on Beacon Hill, though measures to expand access to voter registration or make it more convenient have been proposed for years and are often pitched as ways to boost turnout numbers.
Carvalho first filed his bill in November 2015, and it did not emerge from the Election Laws Committee, which killed the bill by ordering further study on it. A Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, automatic registration bill, filed in December 2015, garnered the backing of eight other lawmakers before dying in the House Ways and Means Committee.
Oregon in March 2015 became the first state to pass automatic voter registration, with California following suit later that year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
In 2016, West Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, Georgia, Alaska and the District of Columbia approved the policy. Colorado and Rhode Island did so this year, and automatic voter registration is headed for the 2018 ballot in Nevada after Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it.
In Illinois, Rauner marked the new law with tweets. “I signed SB 1933, which will remove a barrier to voter participation by modernizing the voter registration process to make it simpler … and more convenient for Illinoisans to vote. It’s my hope that this will increase voter participation so constituents’ voices are heard,” he wrote.
Bills to implement or expand automatic registration were introduced in 32 states this year, according to the Brennan Center, which said nationwide automatic registration would add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, save money and increase accuracy and security of elections.
A Massachusetts election reform package passed in 2014 established online voter registration, allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register, and required cities and towns to set up early voting sites available to residents at 11 business days before certain elections.
The Legislature also passed laws in 2014 and 2016 updating campaign finance rules, including a doubling of the maximum contribution in an election cycle to $1,000 per donor, new super PAC and political advertising disclosure rules and an allowance for candidates who run in a special election and a regularly scheduled election in the same year to collect maximum donations from supporters for both races instead of just once.