Falchuk: Massachusetts Election Reform Bill Won’t Improve Voting

Massachusetts election reform bill, HB 3788, is currently being considered by the state House after passing the Senate, 37-1. At this point, the bill offers many reforms to Massachusetts voting which expand the voting rights of Massachusetts, including early voting, online voter registration, pre-registration for 16-year-olds, post-election audits of voting machines, and inactive voting reform.

Early voting, which has already been adopted in 32 states, would allow people to vote 10 business days before an election, a measure that would decrease congestion during Election Day.

“It increases the number of options voters have to cast a ballot,” writes Common Cause’s State Field Director Tyler Creighton in a guest editorial in the Taunton Daily Gazette. “In this era of increasingly busy and complex lives, we should provide greater flexibility for voters to participate in our democracy.”

Online voter registration, approved in 20 states, would allow voters to register online and would use the Registry of Motor Vehicles database to keep voter IDs updated.

“Online voter registration will reduce processing time, cut costs, decrease errors, and encourage more people to register,” claims Creighton in a Common Cause blog post.

The bill would create a task force which would perform post-election audits of voting machines. The audits would ensure the accuracy of vote counts and the functionality of voting machines.

“This reform is a common-sense business practice that will instill greater voter confidence in the integrity of our elections,” Creighton said, “and can uncover important information about voting machine malfunctions and other voting inaccuracies.

HB 3788 also makes changes to the inactive voter procedures, which makes voters who don’t sign a local consensus form or vote in 2 consecutive elections “inactive” voters. This means that while one can still vote, they must sign additional paperwork in order to do so and will not receive sample or vote-by-mail ballots. The bill reforms these procedures by sending a notice to voters who are in danger of being an “inactive” voter, allowing them to respond in order to not be put on the list.

The bill would also allow for the pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds, a measure that would modestly increase voter turnout — a trend that potentially could continue into adulthood.

However, HB 3788 has received criticism for not doing enough to help.

“What they passed is typical of what you would see in politics today,” independent gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk said in an interview, “which are a series of measures which are unobjectionable and aren’t going to alter anything significant with the way voting works.”

One problem is that some of the reforms simply don’t increase voter turnout.

“There are studies that show that early voting, generally, is taken advantage of by people who will vote anyway and online voter registration does help some amount with increasing voter registration, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the number of people who vote,” Falchuk said.

One study conducted by Barry C. Burden, a political science major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows that early voting actually has the consequence of lowering total voter turnout.

“The one reform where there is data that shows that it increase voter participation is the same-day voter registration,” said Falchuk, “and that wasn’t part of the final bill as I understand it.”

Same-day voter registration, which allows voters to register to vote on the same day they cast a ballot, was part of a Senate version of the bill, but not in the House version. Advocates have since ceded that it probably won’t survive the House-Senate conference committee.

Another problem with the bill is that it does nothing to combat the disadvantages Independent candidates face with unfair campaign finance laws.

“In Massachusetts,” Falchuk said, “if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, and you’re running for statewide office, voters are allowed to give you up to $15,000 per person per year through a complicated set of different federal and state accounts. As an independent candidate, or a non-party candidate, those same people are only allowed to give you $1,000 per year. Rules like this exist all around the country, including at the federal level.”

With Governor Deval Patrick suggesting he will sign the bill into law, HB 3788 is likely to become law in the future.