An easier path to voting

Published May 30th 2007 in The Boston Globe

Massachusetts is a proudly hyper-politicized state, with almost 4 million registered voters out of a population of 6 million. The national malaise of low voter turnout that shames the United States is not as acute here, and no one bureaucratic fix is likely to cure that anyway. Still, same-day voter registration is working to boost turnout -- or at least to stall its decline -- in seven other states that allow it, and with the proper planning and resources Massachusetts should join in.

Legislation being heard at the State House today would allow people who miss the voter registration deadline -- typically 20 days before an election -- to cast a ballot in their polling place after showing proof of residency and identity, and signing an oath. Many voters don't tune into elections until the last days, and denying the franchise to someone who misses a deadline three weeks in advance seems churlish. To avoid pile ups on election day, though, some incentive to planning ahead ought to remain, such as an "express lane" for pre registrants.

In the 2004 presidential election, turnout in the states with same-day registration was 73.8 percent, compared with 60.2 percent in the states without it. The advantage held true whether a state was considered "safe" or a "battleground," and was even more pronounced among younger and transient voters, who are the future of electoral politics in the country.

Voter fraud has not been shown to be a major problem in any of the states, and can be avoided through a central computerized registry that will instantly show poll workers if a person has already voted in another precinct. Fortunately, legislation passed last year allows poll workers to be as young as age 16, which should increase the pool of tech-savvy high-schoolers, who earn roughly $100 to work the polls.

But advocates shouldn't underestimate the costs and preparation required to make same-day registration go smoothly. Massachusetts would be one of the few states with large urban populations to adopt it -- the seven current states are Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Wisconsin -- and long lines and confusion are almost certain to result without enough extra poll workers, training, and voter education. "There's no shortcut to this," warns Secretary of State William Galvin, who nonetheless supports the bill.

In the end, people vote because they believe they have a stake in the outcome. If citizens don't realize a benefit to political expression, no amount of tinkering with the rules will get them to the polls. After all, the freedom not to vote is also inherent in the franchise. But a modern democracy shouldn't put barriers in the way of those who sincerely want to cast a ballot. Massachusetts can lead other large states in expanding voting rights.