Election Day registration
State Senator Cynthia Creem and State Representative Gloria Fox have introduced SB 446 and HB 646, which would make it possible for eligible citizens to register and vote on Election Day. Governor Patrick and Secretary of State Galvin have both gone on record supporting Election Day Registration.
I recently had a discussion with Avi Green, the leader of MassVOTE, about the proposal for election-day registration. I really don't have a firm opinion on this proposal, but I think it's worth discussing the possible unintended consequences.
Here's what I initially said to Avi: Though I do, in principle, support the idea of same-day voter registration, there is a potential dark side to it.
Well-financed political campaigns are also the
ones best-equipped for get-out-the- vote campaigns and Election Day mechanics. Thus it is likely that these well-financed campaigns could be the chief beneficiaries of same-day registration. In short, the rich may get richer.
My focus in almost all elections is the leveling of the playing field in every way so that non-incumbents can compete fairly against incumbents. I'm not yet convinced that same-day registration will help to level that playing field. My fear is that it will tilt it even further.
To cite a specific Cambridge example, since I know that you're familiar with the turf, Anthony Galluccio has always had a serious Election Day machine with poll watchers, phone banks, and cars waiting to take people to the polls. If you add same-day registration to the mix, the Galluccio campaign will almost certainly capitalize on it more than other candidates.
I also have some concerns about the possibility that "walking around money" may be used to buy the votes of not-yet registered voters.
Avi responded with some good points, and I hope he doesn't mind me quoting him:
Do you think Anthony's machine is so strong because of its financial edge? I am not an expert on who spends what in Cambridge politics, but I think that Anthony's strength, somewhat like Jarrett's, comes from his ability to recruit both volunteers and money.
You know me, I am a huge campaign finance reform supporter. Interestingly enough, many incumbents criticize same-day from exactly the opposite perspective - they are afraid that same-day will help the low-money, high-energy campaigns of challengers, powered
by the people most likely to get involved using same-day: young people, low-income people,
people who recently moved, and new citizens.
To this, I responded (partially edited):
It's true that Anthony has had legions of volunteers in the past and that helped him in his campaigns, but he also has financial resources that pays for a year-round campaign headquarters. Let's also not forget that direct mail is a big part of campaigns these days, and a citywide mailing that targets all residents, including not-yet registered- to-vote residents, is primarily something the well-funded campaigns will be able to do.
As a case in point, I know that Tim Toomey's no fan of same-day registration. I remember one evening at Cambridge City Hall where Galluccio was promoting same-day registration and Toomey spoke in opposition.
To Toomey, and others, same-day registration represents yet another cost. In truth, they're also comfortable with "the devil they know" and will generally prefer to keep things more or less as they are.
Toomey would prefer not to campaign at all. Let's also not forget that Toomey doesn't rely on a gigantic political machine with many volunteers. He basically just keeps plugging away on the constituent services front to retain the loyalty of existing voters.
I spoke with Toomey that night at City Hall and he expressed concern about vote-buying and other potential irregularities, not only in regard to same-day registration but also in regard to proposals
for mail-in voting and multi-day voting. I'm not on the same page as Toomey on this, but I do fear that any of these reforms could have the unintended consequence of rewarding well-funded campaigns at the expense of the more mundane campaigns, including some not so-flashy progressives.
It's hard to play out the financial ramifications - they really could go either way. Here are two scenarios, both of which I think you would agree are reasonable:
1) Charismatic, lower funded candidate-think Matt DeBergalis, Paul Lachelier, Deval Patrick, or Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstoneâs first race for Senate in Minnesota, those are not theoretical, takes advantage of same-day better than a well funded incumbent who is basically doing maintenance on a list of existing supporters. Here, same-day helps the little guy.
2) Big money, charismatic candidate, think Galluccio, Barrios, uses same-day to doing even more flushing on Election Day than before, and thus does even better against less-funded challengers. Here, same-day advantages the big money. So, it's a wash. But here is what we do know:
- Voter turnout in same-day states beats the national average by 12 percent;
- Same-day lets people fix registration problems on the spot;
- In 2004 in MA, MassVOTE, the League, and others deployed 624 volunteers and observed 41,753 people try to vote in low-income urban neighborhoods across Mass. Fully 3,643 people were unable to vote on their first try, and 2,803 would-be voters gave up and left. Eight hundred and forty voters cast provisional ballots, but only 23% of all provisional ballots were valid.
- Same-day can solve nearly all of those problems. In Maine, for example, they have 20 percent fewer provisional ballots than Massachusetts on a per capita basis.
Conclusion: Same-day's effects on the balance of $$ power is unclear. With or without same-day, the power of both money and incumbency remain huge.
What is clear is that same-day boosts participation between three percent and 15 percent. Moreover, same-day protects the right to vote of populations that are the most likely not to vote: low-income people, young people, and new citizens.
My response to that:
One thing you may want to check is whether there was a change in voter turnout as a result of a change to same-day registration. It's conceivable that states with greater civic participation would be the ones to advocate this sort of reform. In that case, the change would just reinforce what was already the case.
Same-day lets people fix registration problems on the spot?
Well, not exactly, but I agree with the sentiment. What I expect will happen is that registration
errors would be flagged, and voters given provisional ballots which would be counted when all the necessary verifications are made.
It's doubtful that precinct workers would have access to the necessary technology and databases at every poll to do much verification. Some routine registration glitches could, of course, be corrected on the spot, but there would still have to be a lot of post-Election- Day follow-up on provisional ballots. It seems pretty clear that all ballots from registered on-the-spot voters would have to be provisional ballots pending proper validation. After all, once the ballot goes in the box, it counts and it can't be uncounted.
I would assume the main (or should I say Maine) reason for that is that there is far less transiency in Maine compared to Massachusetts. Just ask the Post Office. Massachusetts probably holds the world record for most address forwarding. This translates into a lot of Massachusetts voters who are
living in one place and registered to vote in another. I doubt if this is the case in Maine, so you're comparing apples and oranges (or perhaps apples and potatoes).
My conclusion: Same-day's effects on the balance of $$ power is unclear. With or without same-day, the power of both money and incumbency remain huge.
Again, show me the before-and-after data in states that have same-day registration. It's probably correct, but it almost has to be because you're allowing non-voters to be rounded up and hauled down to the polls. That's not going to decrease turnout. It actually redefines "turnout."
I think we both agree same-day protects the right to vote of populations that are the most likely not to vote.