Low Turnout has to be Addressed with New Policies

By Jonathan Cohn, Ward 4 Democratic Committee

Every election, the Boston Elections Department has to prepare for 100 percent turnout. In the preliminary elections two weeks ago on September 26th, turnout was a mere 14%.

Turnout in the precincts constituting the South End ranged from an embarrassing low of 10.95% to a less-than-impressive high of 20.07 percent.

There are many factors at work in the low turnout in our municipal elections—from their low salience in local news, to the average person’s tendency to focus on the national over the local, to the inconvenience of Tuesday elections, to busy schedules, to the self-fulfilling prophecies of campaign targeting, to a civic culture in need of strengthening. Some of these require deep change.

But there are things that we can do in the short term, and one of those is reforming the way voter registration works in Massachusetts.

Boston sees a lot of turnover on September 1 — and our young and mobile neighborhood is no exception. But since the deadline to register to vote was just five days later, many people were shut out of the democratic process. It’s a problem when moving leads to disenfranchisement.

Two reforms can help fix this. The first would be allowing new voters to register, or update their registration, on Election Day. Our neighboring state of New Hampshire has had Election Day Registration since the 1990s; Minnesota and Wisconsin, since the 1970s. Indeed, Massachusetts is the only state in New England without some form of Election Day Registration.

Fortunately, we might get Election Day Registration through the courts, as a Suffolk Superior Court ruled the 20-day registration window to be unconstitutional.

But our Legislature and City Council can act, too. Legislation in the State House (H.2091 / S.373) would bring Automatic Voter Registration to Massachusetts. With AVR, every eligible citizen who goes to an RMV would be automatically registered to vote, unless they say no. AVR makes registration more efficient, voter rolls more accurate, and the electorate more representative of the population writ large. It’s a win-win-win solution.

Reps Jay Livingstone, Aaron Michlewitz, and Byron Rushing—as well as Sens. Joe Boncore, Will Brownsberger, and Sonia Chang-Diaz—all agree and have co-sponsored this bill. If they can bring their colleagues on board, Massachusetts could become the 11th state to adopt this vital reform.

The Boston City Council has taken interest, too. The council unanimously passed a resolution in support of AVR last week, and Councilor Josh Zakim, who chairs the Committee on Civil Rights, held a hearing on voter registration in Boston, convening representatives from the Boston Transportation Department, the Boston Public Schools, and other agencies and departments. The hearing was full of creative ideas that I hope to see put into action.

Here in Boston, we like to see ourselves as a birthplace of democracy. It’s time for us to better deliver on the promise of making sure everyone’s voice is heard in our democratic process.

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