Massachusetts, normally known for its groundbreaking social advances like legalization of same-sex marriage, finds itself behind the eight-ball on the issue of automatic voter registration. Earlier this week, Illinois became the tenth state to enact a law that would eliminate the need for citizens to register to vote with local elections officials. Under a bill that has been introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature, the Registry of Motor Vehicles — as well as other state agencies, colleges and universities — would transmit basic details about a person's, age, residence and citizenship to voting registrars.
Massachusetts has already instituted online registration in order to facilitate the voting process, and automatic registration would appear to be yet another step along that path. There have been a couple of attempts in the last few years to pass an automatic registration bill on Beacon Hill, but they have died in committee.
"I believe in it firmly," said state Senator Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. "Just under 700,000 of our citizens of voting age are not on the rolls. The right to vote should come without barriers. Granting this seems like an obvious step to take."
There are detractors and not all of their claims are without merit. Some feel it necessary that a voter perform some minimal act in order to qualify that demonstrates their interest in the democratic process. As we have recently seen, however, overzealous application of voting requirements can lead to unfair disenfranchisement of certain groups. This goes back to Jim Crow-era "literacy tests" for poor blacks deprived of equal education.
"Some say it will lead to more fraud," Senator Hinds said. "I feel that by relying on modern technology, though, (voter rolls) will be even more accurate." The senator declined to speculate on any ulterior motives behind not promoting more voter turnout, saying only, "Conventionally, there have been party divisions on this." He chose rather to concentrate upon the evidence coming from other states, such as Oregon (the first to enact automatic registration), showing that the policy is making democracy more robust.
A question that naturally arises is whether an eligible citizen who doesn't bother to vote is going to take the trouble even if his or her registration becomes a fait accompli. There's no way of knowing the answer, short of comparative statistics gathered after the first post-enactment election. Nevertheless, automatic registration means at the least that bureaucratic red tape won't be the obstacle standing between a citizen and his duty.
As for those who object to being registered whether they like it or not, an opt-out provision has been included in the bill — although it seems counter-intuitive not to wish to actively protect, through one's vote, those freedoms that prevent encroachment by the state onto one's independence and privacy.
The bill is currently before a joint legislative committee on election laws. We hope to see progress in the effort to make the Massachusetts electorate — and the power it exercises — more representative of the desires of all its citizens.