Guest Op-ed Strengthening Democracy Across the Commonwealth, Including Inside the MA House

By Jonathan Cohn, Ward 4 Democratic Committee

Massachusetts residents pride ourselves in our state’s role in the history of democracy. We have the oldest functioning constitution, and our Legislature is the world’s second oldest deliberative body, right after the UK Parliament.

However, when it comes to participating in that democracy, a myriad of barriers still exist, forcing tradeoffs at every level for those seeking to exercise their right to vote.

Numerous bills in the legislature, with the backing of our local representatives, would change that.

•Reprecincting the City: Boston’s precincts vary drastically in size, with the largest one (Ward 5 Precinct 1) spanning the South End, Bay Village, Chinatown, and Downtown. This can mean long distances to walk and interminable waits at the polls. Other cities and towns in Massachusetts redraw their precincts every decade so that they remain of roughly equal size; Boston last did so almost a century ago. Rep. Aaron Michlewitz has reintroduced legislation to make sure that Boston joins them.

•Expanding Early Voting: Early voting, which was first offered here in 2016, has made voting more convenient, as our Tuesday elections are a vestige of a rural past. Almost 50,000 voters took advantage of early voting in the 2016 presidential election. Rep. Jay Livingstone, with the support of other Boston representatives like Rep. Jon Santiago, has filed legislation to expand early voting to all elections, including primaries and municipal elections.

•Election Day Registration: Two-thirds of leases in Boston turn over on September 1st (which should be no surprise to any of us use to seeing all the moving vans). But given our twenty-day registration cutoff, that can lead to people getting disenfranchised solely by moving. Both Reps. Livingstone and Santiago are supporters of a bill filed by Jamaica Plain’s Rep. Liz Malia to allow voters to update their registration or register anew on Election Day itself or during the early voting, one of the most proven policies for increasing voter participation.

•Registering Returning Community Members: Massachusetts is one of 14 states that prohibit individuals serving a felony sentence from voting while incarcerated but return the right to vote immediately upon release. Rep. Santiago and Rep. Chynah Tyler are both supporters of a bill from Mattapan’s Rep. Russell Holmes that would make sure that individuals leaving prison are informed of this right, as civic participation is a proven way of reducing recidivism.

Our city and our Commonwealth would be better places if these and other pro-democracy legislation passed this session.

However, democracy is not only important in our elections. It’s important in our practice of governance itself.

And it’s for that reason that I was disappointed to see our representatives, who are so often champions of democracy, vote against a series of reforms proposed in the State Legislature to make it a more democratic and transparent place.

Opaque processes and procedures are prevalent in the MA House, leaving the public—and even many legislators—in the dark while monied interests can exert sway behind closed doors. And an over-centralization of power encourages a culture of quiescence and retaliation, discouraging open debate on important issues.

Simple changes could go a long way to changing this. Rep. Jon Hecht (D-Watertown) filed amendments to the House rules package to ensure that representatives have enough time to read bills and amendments before voting on them, and to publish hearing testimony and roll call votes from closed-door committees online. All of these reforms would have invited the public into the legislative process, and our representatives voted against all of them.

I don’t envy representatives, who are likely lobbied heavily by House Leadership to strike such common-sense measures down. But the flourishing of democracy requires boldness, and it requires sunlight.

We still have a year and a half left in the legislative session. It is my hope that, by next July, new pro-democracy legislation will be on the books, and our delegation will feel empowered to fight for democracy in the State House as well as the Commonwealth.

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