Our Opinion: Clearing pathway to get to the polls

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Like any collection of mere mortals, the Massachusetts Legislature has its flaws. Nevertheless, our lawmakers have proved themselves capable of rising to the occasion and producing legislation that is a model for their counterparts throughout the country.

Such is the case with voter registration in the Bay State, a matter long in need of an upgrade. Earlier this month, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the current law, which sets a 20-day window between the final day a resident of the state can register to vote and Election Day, was constitutional in that it did not restrict anyone's access to voting (Eagle, July 4).

In her written opinion, however, Justice Kimberly Budd reminded the Legislature that it was within its purview, as well as its obligation, to continually revisit that window and shorten it as circumstances permitted.

Thanks to modern technology and interconnected databases, that window has now been rendered obsolete. It is now possible for the state to automatically register voters, because the information necessary for verification has already been provided by eligible residents who do business with state government in a variety of ways.

Rising to the call, the state House and Senate have passed one of the most comprehensive packages in the country that should add an estimated half-million extra registered voters to the rolls, according to Common Cause. Not content with a mere "motor-voter" law that would automatically register those applying for a driver's license, both houses included applicants for the MassHealth program, and left open the possibility that other state agencies could contribute data from their own databases into the main voter registration record-keeping system (the Department of Transitional Assistance, which administers the food stamp program, is another example).

Considering that 13 other states already have automatic voter registration provisions on their books, there is no excuse in the modern era for states to require residents to undergo an entirely separate operation before performing an act that is central to the exercise of good citizenship. The majority of Bay State residents have personal information in one database or another, including those like the disadvantaged, minorities and the elderly, for whom the process of registration adds undue inconvenience and burden.

The issue of voter participation is not a partisan one — or at least, it shouldn't be, unless those who oppose it have an ulterior motive in seeking to depress turnout by certain groups. In the Massachusetts Senate, however, the new measure passed unanimously as members of both parties acknowledged that democratic government functions best when its power is derived from a maximum number of participating constituents.

After minor differences between the two bills have been reconciled, the measure goes to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk. While the governor did not say what he would do Friday, his statement expressing confidence that the Registry of Motor Vehicles can handle its responsibilities under the new law would indicate that he is likely to sign it.

Considering that there has been room left for expansion of the database by contributing agencies should they meet certain safeguards, this open-ended law stands to only increase its impact upon and benefit to Bay Staters over time. The ultimate responsibility for its success lies with voters' determination to exercise this privilege on Election Day.

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