By: Adriana Dunn
On August 9, 2018, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law an automatic voter registration (AVR) bill, making Massachusetts the fourteenth state to approve of AVR. The law became effective January 1, 2020, over a month before the registration deadline for the 2020 primaries. The new system works with existing state agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles and Massachusetts health insurance systems (MassHealth and the Commonwealth Health Connector). A U.S. citizen in Massachusetts will be automatically registered to vote when they apply for or renew: a driver’s license, a learner’s permit, a state ID, MassHealth benefits, or health insurance through the Mass Health Connector. After applying for one of these services, the citizen will be mailed a postcard informing them that they have been registered to vote, unless they should choose to opt-out.
Additionally, AVR in Massachusetts will work to AVR works as an opt-out system rather than an opt-in system, with an option to opt-out of or to reject changes to your voter registration profile at any time. The citizen will be automatically registered as “Unenrolled” (commonly known as Independent) and will have the opportunity to affiliate with a political party after registration. As of January 2021, 20 states and the District of Columbia are participating in AVR. The common methods of AVR opt-out in other states include postcard via mail (the Massachusetts method), registration opt-out at the agency (such as Rhode Island), and registration opt-in at the agency (such as Delaware).
According to data provided by the Massachusetts Secretary of State, in February 2019, prior to the implementation of AVR, 4,434,934 people were registered to vote. In February 2020, after AVR began, the number of registered voters jumped to 4,581,319, and the latest recording in February 2021 has the number of registered voters in Massachusetts at 4,731,940. This is the second highest recorded number of registered voters since the Secretary of State started recording back in 1948, with the highest recorded amount being 4,812,909 in October of 2020. This data shows that from 2019 to 2021, Massachusetts has averaged about 150,000 newly registered voters a year. In Oregon, the first state to implement AVR, 260,000 voters were added to the registration list in the first six months. Oregon utilizes a similar notification based opt-out method as Massachusetts and only works with their state DMV to update the voter registration rolls. Although AVR has increased the number of registered voters in Massachusetts and beyond, critics of AVR worry that automatically registering voters infringes on First Amendment rights. Especially in states like Massachusetts with opt-out postcards sent in the mail, critics are concerned that this does not offer the person enough of an opportunity to decline to register. Critics also question whether AVR actually increases voter turnout, as being registered to vote does not ensure that a person actually goes out and votes.
Although Massachusetts is ahead of the curve in terms of AVR, they are still falling behind when it comes to same-day voter registration. 21 states, including most of New England, have enacted same-day registration, which would allow people to register to vote at their polling place the day of the election as long as they can provide proof of residence. AVR only works when people update their information with a separate state agency, whereas same-day voter registration would ensure that voting age citizens were not disenfranchised because of an administrative error or a missed deadline. While AVR was absolutely a step in the right direction for voter participation in Massachusetts, same-day registration would allow for even more accessibility and help a maximum amount of voting age citizens in Massachusetts exercise their right to vote.