Living up to the Ideals of Democracy in Policy and Practice

The following testimony was submitted to the Joint Committee on Election Laws on Thursday, June 20, 2019.

Chairman Finegold, Chairman Lawn, and members of the Joint Committee on Election Laws,

My name is Jonathan Cohn, and I am the chair of the Issues Committee of Progressive Massachusetts. Progressive Massachusetts is a statewide grassroots advocacy organization that fights for shared prosperity, racial and social justice, good government and strong democracy, and sustainable infrastructure and environmental protection.

When the basic practices and principles of our democracy are under attack on the national level and in states across the country, it is important for Massachusetts to take steps to redouble our commitment to democracy and citizen engagement here at home.

A strong democracy is one in which all citizens have the opportunity and ability to participate and make their voices heard. Progressive Massachusetts would thus like to go on record in support of S.396 / H.685 (An Act relative to election day registration), S.389 / H.720 (An Act ensuring municipal participation of the widest eligible range), S.404 / H.646 (An Act promoting political participation), and S.392/H.669 (An Act increasing voter registration and participation to help prevent recidivism).

Election Day Registration (S.396/H.685)

In Massachusetts elections, an unnecessary and arbitrary 20-day registration cutoff disenfranchises more than 100,000 voters from participating in our elections. Given that the average American moves more than 11 times over the course of their lives, moving near Election Day could lead to disenfranchisement under the current system. Likewise, given the stress of work, family, and myriad other commitments, many voters may first start to learn about an election after the registration window has already passed. Indeed, this is the period when media coverage of elections--and thus voter information--is the strongest. But when voters seek to update their registration or register anew, they are shut out of the process.

When there are errors in voters’ registration, they are typically asked to fill out a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are cumbersome for election workers and leave voters feeling as though their votes didn’t count. And our first experiences at the polls--indeed, all of our experiences at the polls--have an impact on our voting habits throughout our lives.

Our neighboring states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut have already realized the problems with such a cutoff and adopted Election Day Registration (EDR). Maine has had EDR since the 1970s, and New Hampshire since the 1990s. EDR creates more positive experiences at the polls and, indeed, higher turnout, with studies showing an increase in turnout of approximately 5 percent. That is what a strong democracy looks like.

Last year, voters in Maryland and Michigan approved Election Day Registration at the ballot. Legislatures in New Mexico, Utah, and Washington have passed EDR. Let’s build on our recent progress in election modernization and make Massachusetts the next state to embrace this time-tested reform.

 

Municipal Voting Age (S.389 / H.720)

Last year, Massachusetts created a civics requirement for our high school students, a recognition that a strong democracy depends on informed and engaged citizens.

The best way to learn is by doing. High school students have taken that mantra to heart and are advocating for legislation to allow cities and towns to lower the local voting age to 16 or 17 for municipal elections.

The home rule petition process that governs this and myriad other areas of law is fundamentally anti-democratic. If cities and towns want to make their elections more inclusive and to give students the valuable learning experience of participating in an election, they should be able to.

This legislation would not force cities and towns to make such a change; it simply allows those that wish to make that change to do so. Who can argue with that?

 

Promoting Political Participation (S.404/H646)

Although democracy, in theory, is a great equalizer, the inequities that exist in our economic sphere all too often get in the way. Low-income citizens face substantial obstacles in participating in politics and policymaking: they vote at lower rates than more affluent citizens, contribute to campaigns at lower rates, and contact elected officials at lower rates.

This bill would enable citizens to authorize small, regular deductions from pay, at levels

they can afford, to contribute to political and advocacy organizations, thereby eliminating transaction costs that affect unbanked and underbanked populations and encouraging greater participation.

 

Reducing Recidivism (S.392/H.669)

 

Although those serving prison terms for felony convictions are barred from voting in Massachusetts, the rest of the incarcerated population can legally vote, provided they are citizens age 18 or over. However, many jails fail to help people obtain absentee ballots and indeed provide false information to prisoners about their eligibility.

Moreover, although we are one of the 14 states that prohibit people from voting while incarcerated in prison but return the right to vote immediately upon release, many people don’t realize that they have this right.

This bill would enact systems and training to ensure that all eligible citizens are able to register and all eligible voters are able to vote.

In conclusion, Massachusetts has played such a pivotal role in democracy in the United States, and it’s time for us to do more to live up to the ideals and promise of democracy in policy and practice. We ask that you swiftly report these bills favorably out of committee.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

Jonathan Cohn

Chairman, Issues Committee

Progressive Massachusetts

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