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October 23, 2014

It is just about two weeks from Election Day. Here in Massachusetts the marque race is between Charlie Baker on the Republican side and Martha Coakley for the Democrats. And the race is tight – most polls are well within the margin of error though there are substantial differences in available funds. Because of this, an all-star list of Democrats -- unseen outside summer on the Vineyard -- have trekked to the Bay State  to mobilize the Democratic base and raise much needed cash. For strategic reasons, Charlie Baker cannot rely on the same cast of Republican headliners but the last GOP Governor to serve Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, made a successful closed-door fundraising appearance for Baker.

So all this is exciting, correct? Residents of the Commonwealth are impassioned, yes? Nope. Sure, party leaders and core constituencies on the left and right are engaged – but that is their norm. It is the everyday residents of the Commonwealth who have not shown the vigor so palpable in the Brown/Warren Senate race or in either of Deval Patrick’s winning gubernatorial contests. Explanations for this vary – the candidates are not that inspiring, election fatigue, negative PAC ads demobilize the electorate, the candidates themselves have not defined substantial differences between them, little changes on Beacon Hill when Democrats so control the two chambers, etc.

But what if between now and Election Day something dramatic happens policy wise on the campaign (not gaffes)? What if a particular argument really hits home for Bay Staters? Say, for instance, the political advertisement highlighting the award Charlie Baker received for outsourcing jobs resonates. Or perhaps the charge that Coakley was unwilling to take in new information in sex abuse cases while Middlesex DA gains traction. If any of the above occur (or something unforeseen) between now and election day, it simply will not matter for MA residents who are not currently registered to vote. Indeed, if you are not registered to vote by now, you cannot vote on Election Day as Massachusetts election law requires voters register 20 days before the primary or general election in order to cast a ballot.

In May of this year, the governor signed an election bill that helped the Bay State move away from our #42 rating amongst the states for ease of casting a legal ballot. Common sense changes included expanded early voting, online voter registration, and allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to preregister. It largely left alone arcane absentee ballot rules and did not pass same day voter registration though. Of all the convenience voting measures available, same day registration stands out as the only one to have a real effect in reducing inequality in turnout – that is making the differences in turnout between the affluent and the working class less dramatic.

Normatively at least, most citizens agree higher turnout it good. It bestows legitimacy upon election results and better approximates Rockwellian visions of civic engagement. The line “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain” relies, in part, on the premise that if you want to legally vote it is not hard to do so. Yet, the evidence in Massachusetts suggests our election laws remain particularly cumbersome for low-income voters – who disproportionately make up new voters. The changes made to Massachusetts election procedures were indeed a step forward but the research indicates that the convenience voting measures adopted help make it easier for people to vote who would already do so – the affluent. Changes did little to make it easier to facilitate new voters who are be inspired by the final weeks of the campaign. And that is a problem.

Policy differences may emerge in the final weeks of the campaign. The research suggests this is unlikely – campaigns matter less than we think -- but that is not the point. If someone does get inspired, wants to turnout, how can we normatively justify making it impossible to do so? Because their vote would almost never affects the election outcome is hardly a reason to curtail their right to vote as the difference between the individual-level effects of casting a ballot and the aggregate effect of casting that same ballot can and should be differentiated.

Political parties rarely make that distinction though as the operate, primarily, from self-interested preservation. Thus, do elite Massachusetts Democrats and Republicans really want new voters? The existing “rules of the game” advantage the existing party structures – especially the Democrats given the make-up of Beacon Hill and our Congressional delegation. So what incentive do they have to make the change to election law – same day registration – that has the most potential to change the face of turnout in Massachusetts?

The arguments heard against same day registration outside of Political Science rarely implicate the interests of the political parties though. Rather, three arguments are most frequent: (1) it would be too complicated for election officials; (2) same day registration facilitates voter fraud; and, (3) if one can’t get it together to register 20 days before an election “we” probably do not want them voting anyway. To these I say, ten states plus the District of Columbia (twelve if one includes California and Illinois who have passed but not yet implemented) manage same-day registration just fine – is MA less adept? Don’t believe the hype – there is simply no evidence voter fraud is remotely rampant in American elections. And, lastly, the principle of “one person, one vote” that individuals fought and died to expand provides no justification for arbitrary deadlines in exercising the franchise.

So, as we come to the closing in the Massachusetts governor’s race, elect our delegation to the House of Representatives, decide multiple down ticket races, and weigh in on four important ballot issues, it is troubling that residents who decide between now and Election Day that they want to exercise their right to the franchise are out of luck. Surely, the Democrats who control Beacon Hill can do better -- that is, if they want to.

voter turnout, Mass. Governor 2014, electoral legitimacy, same day voter registration

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