Low voter turnout cited in new push for Automatic Voter Registration law

Two days after fewer than one-third of eligible voters in Boston cast ballots in this month’s mayoral election, election reform advocates held a rally outside the State House and called on legislators to enact an Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) process that would register eligible voters and update the information of registered voters who interact with state agencies, including the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Revenue, MassHealth, the Department of Higher Education, and all public institutions of higher education.

AVR legislation is supported by the Election Modernization Coalition, a cohort of various organizations including Common Cause Massachusetts, League of Women Voters MA, MassVOTE, MASSPIRG, Mass Voter Table, Progressive Massachusetts, and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. The coalition believes that AVR would draw more voters to the polls each year and increase turnout.

Meryl Kessler, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, believes that automatic registration would safeguard the country’s democracy. “All eligible Massachusetts residents have the constitutional right to participate in our elections and to have their vote count,” she said. “For many people—especially those who move frequently, who work multiple jobs, who are low-income, and who lack computer access—it is unnecessarily burdensome to keep voter registration up to date and navigate the voter registration bureaucracy.”

According to Kessler, AVR, which would include an opt-out provision, would remove obstacles to full participation in the electoral process,. Supporters believe AVR will streamline voter registration and make it more secure. If legislation passes, the Election Modernization Coalition speculates that up to 680,000 new voters across the state will be registered.

Ten states now use a form of AVR, with Illinois the last to join up. The others are Oregon, which was the first to adopt the policy, in 2015, California, West Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, Georgia, Alaska, Colorado, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.

Beth Huang, field coordinator of the Massachusetts Voter Table, said automatic registration would decrease the amount of time political parties and campaigns spend registering voters while increasing the time spent educating voters.

“In addition to registering new voters, AVR is especially effective at updating the voter rolls,” Huang said. “Because the bill in Massachusetts includes MassHealth as an agency that will automatically register people to vote, renters and more transient voters will have more up-to-date voter information. This small change would have a big impact for communities of color and low-income voters.”

Earlier this year, legislation calling for the creation of AVR was introduced by sate Sen. Cynthia Creem and sate Rep. Peter Kocot. The initiative has received popular support in both of the state’s legislative chambers, with 22 Senate sponsors and 80 House co-sponsors.

“Turnout numbers wouldn’t automatically increase only because of Automatic Voter Registration,” Huang said. “However, automatic voter registration can expand the electorate. Campaigns will be able to contact a larger number of voters, and we can expect turnout, especially of transient voters, to increase.”