City Council Aims to Increase Voter Access

April 6, 2018
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In an effort to increase voter participation and take away barriers to get to the polls, the Boston City Council is considering implementing simple steps at a minimal cost to make it easier for residents to participate in voting.

City Councilor Josh Zakim voters’ access proposal was heard by the Boston City Council’s Committee on Government operations on Monday, March 26, after the last meeting was canceled due to a snowstorm.

“We need to do everything we can to encourage more people to register to vote and, on Election Days, to get out and vote,” said Zakim. “We heard on Saturday’s March for Our Lives that the best way to demand change is to get people to vote. Automatic voter registration and making it easier to register are logical steps in that direction.”

The ordinance requires high schools, school welcome centers and libraries to make voter registration forms available and visible in central locations.

But, one of the key elements to Zakim’s ordinance that would automatically register eligible Bostonians to vote when they apply for a resident parking sticker is not possible under current state laws.

“The voter registration is a state wide system and is managed by the state,” said Dion Irish, Boston Elections Commissioner. “The only agency that can register voters is the Register of Motor Vehicles. It would take a bill at the State House to make that automatic for the Boston parking clerk.”

Irish said that the Boston elections department is able to look at the State’s roll and add people to their list, but they can’t add anyone to the state’s list.

“Automatic registration is not currently available for the parking clerk to do, but we are here and looking forward to working on other solutions,” said Irish.

Irish said that the parking clerk issues tens of thousands of resident parking stickers in the city, and a lot of people come into their office at City Hall. He said, while they are waiting in line they will have a table for people to register to vote, and when they are renewing online, they hope to have a link to sign up for voter registration as well.

“It looks like we have some shared goals and I’m optimistic,” said Zakim.

Zakim filed this proposal last fall after holding a hearing in the Committee on Civil Rights to examine ways the City of Boston could make voter registration easier.

Additionally, Zakim offered a resolution endorsing Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) legislation currently pending in the state legislature. That resolution was unanimously adopted by the Boston City Council in October 2017.

“Voting is a fundamental right,” said Councilor Kim Janey. “Growing up we voted together as a family, and when I was a young adult it was kind of a big deal to go vote with my grandma, aunt and uncles. I now, bring my daughter to the polls so when she comes of age she is aware, too. But, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Janey asked if more time was being spent in neighborhoods that had lower registration rates and less participation historically.

Irish said that they would be doing census mailing and going door to door over the summer. During the census survey, they can also register voters while knocking on doors.

Councilor Matt O’Malley asked what it would take to send a voter registration form to every eligible non-registered voter in the City.

Irish said it could cost the city about $200,000 to send those additional forms. O’Malley said a registration form could be something to send out along with census taken every year. About 400,000 households in Boston receive the census information by mail each year already.

“I’m not minimizing using schools and community centers, but with a City that has an operating budget of $3.15 billion, a several-thousand-dollar expenditure could be the answer to increasing access to voter registration.”

Councilor Frank Baker agreed, saying voter registration should be sent with the census envelopes in the mail.

Councilor Ed Flynn asked if there was any way to make it easier for veterans who are deployed to vote. After experiencing personal difficulties while abroad for military service, Flynn said he was often frustrated when the absentee ballot came days after the election happened – rendering him the ability to vote.

“Voting is a sacred right, and do we have any plans to make it easier for veterans deployed to weigh in on voting?” asked Flynn. “I understand that being over seas there’s technology issues and the mail can be a problem but, those serving on active duty should have the opportunity to vote.”

Irish said that it can be a challenge relying on the U.S. Postal system to get those ballots to those deployed, especially when the primary election and final elections in Massachusetts are timed so close together. This year the primary is set for Sept. 4 and the final election is in Nov. 4, making it difficult to send out the new absentee ballots in time.

But, during federal elections military members can scan their ballot and e-mail it in without having to mail the ballot. Irish said this is something they will look into expanding for municipal elections.

“I support giving young people as much opportunity to vote but, veterans and their families who gave us that opportunity to vote need to enjoy the same rights and access too,” said Flynn.

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