Automatic voter registration pitched to improve elections turnout

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BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – Activists continued their push Wednesday to change voter registration in Massachusetts from an opt-in to an opt-out system in hopes of ginning up greater participation in elections.

“There’s roughly about 700,000 eligible citizens in Massachusetts that are not registered to vote,” Pamela Wilmot, executive director of the good government group Common Cause Massachusetts, said. “That is roughly the size of the city of Boston and that is very unfortunate. We need to do more to involve them.”

Wilmot told the Joint Committee on Election Laws that automatic voter registration is “the new gold standard of how to involve voters in the process” as she testified in favor of a bill (H 4097) filed by Boston Rep. Evandro Carvalho that would require the secretary of state to establish an automatic registration system that would also update a voter’s address if that voter provides change-of-address information to a state agency or public higher education institution.

The bill includes an opt-out provision for those who do not want to be registered to vote.

“This legislation would help fix these problems by electronically registering thousands of residents instantly. It would require all online portals to be secure and would include express provisions against public dissemination of information,” Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said. “What it would provide is a technologically-smart, 21st century way of tearing down barriers that currently stand in the way of voting.”

Others who testified argued that automatic voter registration would help combat the disenfranchisement of voters of color and voters from low-income neighborhoods.

“Massachusetts has been a consistent leader in all progressive civil rights laws, and particularly in enfranchisement,” former Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination Director Charles Walker said. “This automatic voter registration system is another really good thing to add to Massachusetts’ stellar record of maximizing enfranchisement of people, particularly people of color.”

Though Wednesday’s testimony came specifically on Carvalho’s bill, the committee last month gave a favorable report to a similar bill (H 3937) filed by Rep. Jay Kaufman that would require every eligible citizen who interacts with the Registry of Motor Vehicles be automatically registered to vote, unless they elect to opt out.

Because Kaufman’s bill has already cleared the committee hurdle and now resides with the House Ways and Means Committee, Wilmot said she plans to focus her advocacy on getting that bill passed into law.

Wilmot also testified Wednesday in support of a Sen. Jamie Eldridge bill (S 213) aimed at increasing transparency of corporate political spending, which the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 to be a First Amendment right not to be limited by the government.

“The ability of the state to regulate that spending is relatively limited. However, under the rubric of corporate law we can ensure at least that it is accountable spending,” Wilmot said. “And that would be to have the owners of corporation actually approve political spending.”

The bill would require shareholders to authorize in advance the recipients of and the total amount of the corporation’s political expenditures each year, and to disclose those expenditures online within 48 hours of giving the money to a candidate or committee.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service

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