By Jonathan Cohn for CommonWealth, September 22, 2020
Voting by mail is a simple way to expand democratic participation.
ON SEPTEMBER 1, Massachusetts voters broke a record. Whether by mail, by dropbox, or in person, 1.7 million voters cast a ballot for our state primaries, exceeding the previous record from 1990.
To put this into perspective, 1.7 million is approximately the same as the number of votes cast in the 2014 and 2018 state primaries—combined. And it’s more than the 2010, 2012, and 2018 state primaries combined.
We also saw more votes cast in our Democratic state primary (1,427,868) than in the Democratic presidential primary earlier this year (1,417,498), which had itself broken the record from 2008 (1,352,157).
Why did so many more people vote this year? The answer is simple: the Legislature made voting more accessible.
Mailing every active voter an application to vote by mail accomplished two important goals. First, it reminded voters that an election was even happening. (If you have ever volunteered for a campaign, you would be well aware this is one of the main hurdles to increasing engagement.) Second, it enabled voters to cast their ballot on their own timeline rather than having to figure out when during a narrow 11-hour window on September 1 they would have time to go vote.
Although we don’t know the full breakdown of how many people voted by mail or voted in person, the fact that Secretary of State Bill Galvin received more than 1 million vote-by-mail applications shows that vote-by-mail was popular. When the Commonwealth indicates to people that their participation matters, they participate.
This should come as no surprise. In 2016, the US Government Accountability Office conducted a report on the impacts of various voting reforms on turnout. They found that two reforms had the most consistent, proven positive impacts: universal vote-by-mail and Election Day registration. Universal vote-by-mail increases the percentage of the electorate that participates, and Election Day registration increases the size of the electorate itself by enabling voters to register or update their registration at the polls.
Just as we got a taste of what a universal vote-by-mail system could look like this year (we should skip the application step by sending all registered voters a mail-in ballot and make the reform permanent), we will also get a taste of what Election Day registration is like.
By expanding the number of days of early voting (and extending it to the primary) and shortening the voter registration cutoff date to 10 days, Massachusetts created a unique situation in which voters would, in fact, be able to register to vote on the same day that they go to the polls. For the primary, that special day was August 22, the first day of early voting. For the general, it will be just over a week: October 17 to October 24.
What that shows is that our 20-day cutoff is entirely arbitrary (as a Suffolk Superior judge ruled in 2018), and that Election Day registration is fully doable, especially with the adoption of electronic poll books. Our neighbors in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut have had Election Day registration for years—in some cases, decades.
Election Day registration means that you won’t end up disenfranchised because you chose (or were forced) to move or because someone else made a clerical error. And it means better experiences not only for voters but also for poll workers, who don’t have to deal with provisional ballots or simply turning prospective eligible voters away.
Today—the fourth Tuesday in September—is National Voter Registration Day, a nonpartisan civic holiday created by a bipartisan group of secretaries of state and election advocates in 2012. Next September will be the tenth year of this holiday. Today, we should celebrate the success of the temporary reforms passed this year. Next year, I hope we can celebrate the passage of even bolder and permanent reforms.
The Ward 4 Democratic Committee sent the following letter to Senators Will Brownsberger and Sonia Chang-Diaz, who serve on the conference committee working on a final bill.
This summer began with a wave of protests in response to the tragic killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers. Since then, new tragedies have emerged across the country, most recently the police assault on Jacob Blake. Each reveals the legacy of systemic racism in this country.
Many politicians are willing to say that they believe that Black Lives Matter. Massachusetts needs to turn words into policies to address the systemic racism in our own backyard
The members of the Boston Ward 4 Democratic Committee are grateful for the work that you did earlier this summer in crafting the Senate’s police accountability bill, named the Reform + Shift + Build Act (S.2820), and have been grateful to see that both of you are now serving on the Conference Committee tasked with developing a consensus bill.
We urge you to stand by the key components of the Senate bill:
- Reforming Qualified Immunity: The doctrine of qualified immunity grants impunity to public officials (especially law enforcement) who violate someone’s constitutional rights unless there is an identical situation in case law in which a public official was held accountable, a standard that prevents victims of police violence from getting their day in court and provides carte blanche to police officers to violate people’s basic rights. Without strong reforms to qualified immunity like the Senate bill provides, we will have only taken baby steps forward.
- Reforming Massachusetts Civil Rights Act: The Senate bill further removes language that courts have interpreted to require that victims show that police violated their rights using “threats, intimidation or coercion.” Courts have interpreted this to mean that only those who threaten such actions can be held accountable, but those who commit them—assaulting victims by actions like shooting, tasing, or punching—cannot. This is a perversion of justice, and the Senate remedy is vital.
- Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The 2018 criminal justice reform bill, in which both of you played a pivotal role, took significant steps toward dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. The Senate bill continues this work by prohibiting schools from transmitting personal information about students or their family members to law enforcement and allowing superintendents to determine if police should be assigned to local schools. Schools need to be safe and welcoming places, not sites of fear and over-policing.
- Reinvesting in Communities: The Reform + Shift + Build Act recognizes that a core component of addressing systemic racism is reinvesting in communities. The Justice Workforce Reinvestment Fund would invest money equivalent to that saved by reduced incarceration into creating economic opportunities for impacted communities.
Although the Senate bill was, overall, much stronger that the House bill, we urge you to include two key parts of the House bill:
- Restricting government use of facial surveillance: The House bill creates permanent, as opposed to temporary, regulations on the use of facial surveillance technologies. Studies have shown that facial surveillance technologies are highly inaccurate and reflect the racial prejudices of their creators (and society at large). Boston has already taken action on this front—and Massachusetts should too.
- Providing reasonable safeguards on the use of no-knock warrants: The House bill requires that police officers certify that there are no known children or elders in a location before they can secure a no-knock warrant. No-knock warrants are holdovers from the era of drug wars and they have often proven deadly.
As the Boston Globe editorial board eloquently noted in a recent article, “This moment must not be lost. It’s time to enact real policing reform in Massachusetts, and at least get our own house in order.”
Thank you for your advocacy, and we urge you to continue fighting for a strong and comprehensive final bill.