It is important for all Massachusetts residents to call their State Senator or Representative and ask them to support House Bill 2091 and Senate Bill 373, an act that automatically registers eligible voters and enhances safeguards against fraud. These bills can implement “automatic voter registration,” also known as AVR, in which citizens are automatically registered to vote in the Commonwealth whenever they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles or interact with state agencies. Individuals can refuse to be registered if they choose, meaning the system becomes opt-out rather than opt-in. In addition, ballots are mailed to all registered voters, although using the ballot remains entirely optional. Automatic voter registration may not arouse passions like more visceral or emotional political issues, yet it is a reform desperately needed in American elections.

Low voter turnout is a chronic problem in American elections. Even in presidential elections, the elections with the most media coverage and highest turnout have less than a 65 percent of potential voter turn-out rate, according to a  Dec. 21, 2016 article from Business Insider. Local, primary and odd-year elections get significantly smaller numbers. For instance, according to a Nov. 8, 2017 article from WBUR News, local statistics for Massachusetts suggest that as few as 27 percent of registered voters participated in the election for governor in 2017.  By comparison, 2017 data from the Pew Research Center showed that Belgium — a country with AVR and compulsory voting — had a nearly 90 percent turnout rate in their most recent national election. One reason for this stark difference is that, according to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General, over 680,000, or roughly 15 percent of individuals, are not registered in Massachusetts alone.  

The problem is that turnout is critically important for the health of the Commonwealth. Environmentalists in Boston have been launching an effort since 2015 to get more people to vote. According to a Oct. 31, 2015 article from The Boston Globe, the Sierra Club and other like-minded organizations have been trying to register more voters. At a recent Lobby Day at the Statehouse, Emily Norton from the Massachusetts Sierra Club spoke, according to a Jan. 31 Statehouse News article. She pointed out that while AVR may not seem like an issue for an environmental organization to lobby for, in fact, there is a "moral urgency to making it easier for environmental justice communities to vote" because election turnout had a strong correlation with anti-environmental policies and pollution. 

There are several reasons why turnout is critically important, not just for the environment but for social justice issues of all kinds. The first is that voters are a hedge against special interests. If local politicians feel as if they are not accountable to voters or that their constituencies do not feel strongly about the values of their candidates, they are more likely to kowtow to the corporations and rich interest groups, who fund their re-election campaigns and send armies of lobbyists to their offices. 

Second, voluntary registration systems have a disparate impact which targets and disenfranchises marginalized groups. Registration exists to verify the identities of individuals who go to the polls. While, auspiciously, many states put into place voter registration laws in an effort to stop voter fraud, these registration laws often came in tandem with other policies intending to restrict the number of registered voters. Voter suppression has long been a tool of the powerful to subdue the will of average citizens. Insidiously, many on-face race-neutral or class-neutral policies — including poll taxes and literacy tests — ensured many poor and Black families were barred from the polls. Although the worst of these policies were banned with the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, voter registration has remained  a mechanism for exclusion. Voter identification laws, for instance, ensure that families of low socioeconomic class are systematically excluded from elections. Regardless  of voter ID laws, more vulnerable groups like immigrants or individuals of low socioeconomic class are the ones likely to not have the resources to be informed on how to register.

By casting a larger net and mailing ballots, states reach far more people. When Oregon implemented this policy in 2015, it registered an additional 270,000 new voters. As a result, the state saw a 4.1 percent increase in voter turnout, an increase of roughly 97,000 new voters in absolute terms, according to a Jan. 27, 2017 article from The Hill. Oregon also found that the policy has a number of extraneous benefits. For one, it made the election system more secure from fraud. While paper registration often requires only a signature, individuals bring proof of citizenship to the DMV. In addition, the new system is cheaper to operate because it is digital and saves massive amounts of paper. 

It is perhaps unsurprising, however, that many conservative politicians oppose automatic voter registration, evidenced in a March 20, 2015 Atlantic article. Many Republicans benefit from smaller minority turnout to the polls, given that these populations disproportionately vote for Democrats. As in the case of voter ID laws, conservatives have shown themselves to be willing to support policies of tacit voter suppression when it benefits their political aims. In Oregon, for instance, the Motor Voter Law, as it was affectionately known, passed through the legislature on party lines. While the Republicans in the Massachusetts Statehouse are too small in number and stature to block the push for AVR, Secretary of State William Galvin has hesitated on backing these bills. At previous points in the past, he has expressed reservations, according to a Jan. 29, 2016 Boston Globe article

Increasing turnout from disenfranchised groups is critical to having their interests reflected by legislators and representatives. The ballot box is the critical way in which average citizens can demand attention from their government. In this way, automatic voter registration is connected to every major issue in the Commonwealth. The passage of HB 2091 and SB 373 will ensure that citizens can advocate more effectively on all issues of importance.