Massachusetts Can Lead Our Democracy Into The 21st Century

06/08/2017 03:53 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2017
Adam Eichen and Frances Moore Lappé testify in front of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Election Laws, June 8th, 2017.
Elizabeth Depentu
Adam Eichen and Frances Moore Lappé testify in front of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Election Laws, June 8th, 2017.

On June 8th, 2017, I offered the following testimony to the Joint Committee on Election Laws at the Massachusetts statehouse in support of automatic voter registration (S. 373 and H. 2091). If passed, Massachusetts would become the 9th state (not including Washington D.C.) to adopt automatic voter registration.

Thank you to the chairs of this committee and its members.

I sit here today honored and humbled to share my views on automatic voter registration with the Joint Committee on Election Laws. I am also thrilled to testify on behalf of the two organizations with which I work: Small Planet Institute, a Cambridge based, pro-democracy think tank, and Democracy Matters, a student-powered national organization with chapters across the country working to restore our democracy.

Many experts have already testified about why automatic voter registration is good policy. And many more will do so after I finish talking with you today.

They have and will explain how automatic voter registration would register many of the almost seven hundred thousand eligible Massachusetts residents not already registered. They have and will detail how automatic registration would reduce human error by using digital registration forms, by more frequently updating records when people move, and by eliminating duplicate records. And, they have and will recount how automatic voter registration would save Massachusetts millions of dollars. And such positive benefits are only the beginning.

But I was not compelled to testify today to recount facts about this innovative reform.

Rather it was to share what I discovered in my research for my book Daring Democracy, coauthored with the founder of Small Planet Institute, Frances Moore Lappé.

For the last nine months, we have assessed the state of our democracy. In our search, we confirmed the now seemingly intuitive notion that Americans across the country are upset for they feel increasingly powerless, that their voice does not matter, and that the political system does not represent them.

But we also found something underreported—that people are eagerly yearning and demonstrating for solutions to make our democracy better represent all voices and work more efficiently. In fact, there is nothing less than a Democracy Movement emerging in our country.

Across the US citizen groups spanning partisan affiliation are working together to push the boundaries of democracy. From public financing of elections to gerrymandering reform, people are mobilizing and reengaging in politics. For someone who cares deeply about this country, this is nothing less than enthralling.

But what surprised us more than anything is the enthusiasm across the country for automatic voter registration. Just since 2015, eight states and Washington DC have enacted this common sense reform. And the results speak for themselves: more registered voters, higher turnout on Election Day, and more faith in our electoral system. And when we’ve gone on the radio or talked with citizen groups, describing automatic voter registration provokes a groan of “Of course, that makes so much sense.” We’ve see it on their faces and in their voices: How is this not a thing already?

The people of Massachusetts, much like those in the forty-nine other states, are ready for automatic voter registration.

To close, I want to turn back the clock to 1801 when Massachusetts became the first state to mandate voter registration. For political stakeholders of the day, much like for those today, voter verification was a necessity. Voter registration made sense. But in the two centuries following this decision, voter registration unnecessarily became a means of disenfranchising Americans that influential politicians did not want to vote. In the post-Reconstruction South this meant African American citizens, and in the North, it was immigrants and citizens of lower socioeconomic levels. Because of these laws, countless eligible voters were denied the franchise.

And still today, minority groups and lower income populations across the country and in Massachusetts are registered at significantly lower rates than the rest of the population.

Massachusetts has the chance today to lead the nation on an effort to rectify the wrongs committed in the past. If and when Massachusetts decides to lead, history will look back at the Bay State and remember it as one of the forbearers of the movement to bring our democracy into the 21st century, creating a system of government that includes and empowers all residents of the state, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my survey of America’s democracy, it is that when bold state leaders are willing to take chances, politicians in other states not only take notice, but more often than not, they also follow suit.

Edit: I have removed the claim that automatic voter registration would reduce the cost per registrant from $3.54 to 3 cents as this estimate is likely not supported by new data.

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