Low voter turnout cited in new push for auto registration

Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, right, Rep. Peter Kocot, and members of advocacy groups spoke in favor of automatic voter registration.

BOSTON — Failure to adopt automatic voter registration would amount to an act of voter suppression, the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to make Massachusetts the eleventh state to automatically register eligible voters said Thursday.

Two days after many cities with municipal elections experienced low voter turnout, election reform advocates held a rally outside the State House to draw attention to their efforts to enact automatic voter registration.

"Not doing this is really a form of voter suppression. To not do this, it doesn't make sense," Sen. Cynthia Creem said.

Creem has sponsored one of the bills this session that would allow the state to use information collected through the Registry of Motors Vehicles and MassHealth to automatically register eligible voters unless the resident declines.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said the bill's passage would reduce the burden on local city election clerks.

Creem said the strong turnout in Newton on Tuesday to vote in the open mayoral election proved to her a hunger among citizens to participate in the electoral process. Automatic registration, she said, would only make it easier.

"I wish we could go right in and vote it right this minute and I'm hopeful we will be doing that this term. We have to," Creem said.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said earlier this week in an interview on WGBH radio that he supports the concept.

"The Senate's ready to take it up, and I'm having conversation with the speaker. I heard he has some interest in it," Rosenberg said.

The Amherst Democrat said he also wanted to talk with Secretary of State William Galvin, the state's chief elections officer, who Rosenberg heard had some concerns with the bill.

"I would love to see it in place for the 2020 statewide election," Rosenberg said.

A spokeswoman for Galvin said the secretary was still reviewing the different versions of the legislation.

Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, MASSPIRG and MassVote were among the groups represented at rally that drew more than dozen proponents holding signs representing the 10 states that have already adopted the strategy.

Rep. Peter Kocot, a Northampton Democrat who filed a version of Creem's bill in the House, also showed up to demonstrate his support. The Creem-Kocot bills have 80 House co-sponsors and 22 Senate sponsors, and received a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Election Laws this summer.

Beth Huang, field coordinator of the Massachusetts Voter Table, said automatic registration would decrease the amount of time campaigns and political parties spend registering voters, and increase the time spent educating voters. Supporters have said as many as 700,000 residents could be registered immediately though the bill.

"It will remove one of the barriers that disproportionately effects our most disenfranchised communities. We strongly believe that automatic voter registration in Massachusetts will increase voter participation and turnout, while still continuing to modernize our electoral process," said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVote.

Michael Basmajian, who works with student chapters of MASSPIRG to register young voters every two years, said automatic registration would free up groups like MASSPIRG to focus on driving up turnout.

"By passing automatic voter registration, we can spend more time on actually turning young people out to vote to have more young people engaged in our democracy," he said.

Wilmot said automatic voter registration would be particularly beneficial for young adults, military families and some senior citizens who move frequently and often push registering at their new address to the bottom of their to-do lists.

"Registration may not seem like a big hurdle for people like us who stay in a community for a long time. We do it once and then we're pretty much done, but there are many families in Massachusetts that are highly mobile," Wilmot said.

Illinois became the tenth state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize automatic voter registration in August. Oregon was first state to adopt the policy in 2015, and has been followed by California, West Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, Georgia, Alaska , Colorado and Rhode Island.