At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, an exhausted Benjamin Franklin walked out of Independence Hall after the last day of deliberations. He was pulled aside by a member of the crowd that desperately wanted to know what type of government would be established. She asked, “well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Benjamin Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Dr. Franklin’s caution or challenge to us is perhaps more relevant now than ever. With the Voting Rights Act repealed, barriers to the ballot popping up across the country, and the threat of foreign powers involved in our elections — we should act on every opportunity we can to preserve and enhance our democracy. Massachusetts has the opportunity to take a step in the right direction by passing legislation that would implement Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).
In March of 2015, Oregon became the first state to pass automatic voter registration, with several other states following suit. In the first year of AVR, over 220,000 Oregonians were registered to vote for the first time. Oregon’s example also proved to diversify the electorate, ensuring a more accurate reflection of age and socioeconomic status on election day.
There are an estimated 700,000 eligible residents of Massachusetts that are not yet registered to vote (about 15% of the eligible voting population). Under AVR, all eligible citizens would be registered to vote when they come into contact with the Department of Motor Vehicles or any other voting registration agency, unless the individual chooses to “opt-out.”
AVR not only boosts participation in our democracy but can also help eliminate existing problems within our current system. Today’s database of voters is full of outdated information. With AVR, states are able to automatically update the addresses of voters who are already enrolled, helping to avoid confusion at the polls and reducing the potential for voter fraud or the unintended rejection of eligible voters on election day.
For states like Massachusetts that already have an online voter registration system in place, the costs to incorporate AVR are low and the savings in taxpayer dollars are potentially high. The costs of switching to AVR would be covered by a federal program implemented under the Bush Administration — the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Massachusetts is one of 12 states that still has more than 10% of our HAVA funds remaining. Despite the ability to register online, voters are still registering by paper across the Commonwealth. We registered dozens by paper in our campaign for State Representative last year. The estimated costs of processing each voter registration form submitted by paper is around $2.00–3.50 in taxpayer dollars. With 700,000 eligible residents not currently registered and a wave of 18 year olds coming into the electorate each year, the savings could be significant.
We’re ready to move on AVR in MA. Will we be complacent with our outdated system that disenfranchises voters, causes inaccurate records and costs taxpayers more, or will we fight like Benjamin Franklin for exhausting, but worthy, change?