Editorial: Registering to vote on Election Day

The MetroWest Daily News

There's a reason we track voter turnout in each election, whether it's electing a selectman or a president: Voter involvement is as good a gauge of the health of our democracy as anything anyone has been able to come up with.

And while we might like all those voters to have read all the position papers and watched every debate, there's no requirement that citizens be well-informed, nor is there an expectation that they choose their candidates months before they vote. Campaign activity is designed to crest on Election Day because political pros know some voters don't focus on their decisions until the weekend before, make up their minds at the last minute and, unless reminded, may forget to make it to the polls. Their votes count just as much as the votes of those who committed early.

But every election, there are thousands of those last-minute voters whose opinions don't count. Maybe they moved to another precinct or another town and neglected to change their voter registration. Maybe their registration information has been lost. Or maybe they are new to politics, caught up in the last-minute campaigning - and simply didn't know that you have to register to vote weeks before Election Day.

There's no good reason why eligible voters must be denied access to the ballot box other than inertia. Eight states now allow voters to register on Election Day. It's time Massachusetts joined them.

The experience of these eight states is instructive. Three of them - Minnesota, Maine and Wisconsin - have had Election Day registration for more than 30 years. People have been registering up to Election Day in New Hampshire, Wyoming and Idaho for 15 years. The fears of voter fraud or confusion at the polling places have not panned out.

What officials in those states have seen is a dramatic increase in participation, with voter turnout averaging 10 percent higher than in states that don't have Election Day registration. These states tend to have high turnout, so that gain can't be expected everywhere, but one study estimates that allowing eligible voters to register on Election Day in Massachusetts could boost turnout by nearly 5 percent. Turnout among groups that typically vote in lower numbers - young people, minorities, poor people and new residents - could increase by as much as 9 percent.

A bill providing for Voter Day registration, sponsored by Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, has been favorably reported out of the Joint Committee on Elections, and backers this week are calling on Senate President Therese Murray to bring it to a vote.

Opposition is expected from some municipal clerks, who worry about anything with the potential to make their jobs more complicated on Election Day, from knee-jerk defenders of the status quo, and from politicians who worry about the unpredictability of first-time voters. None of their reasons are sufficient to counter what should be a basic principle: Whenever possible, the government ought to remove unnecessary barriers to democracy's fundamental act.

The Legislature should approve this bill soon, so that when November comes and it's time to elect a president, no eligible voter will be disenfranchised.