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Election reform bill will increase voter turnout, officials say

Recent research suggests future election reform in Massachusetts may not necessarily yield an increase in voter turnout. PHOTO BY FALON MORAN/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
Recent research suggests future election reform in Massachusetts may not necessarily yield an increase in voter turnout. PHOTO BY FALON MORAN/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

In hopes of spurring an increase in voter turnout, an election reform bill is moving through the State House that would ensure early voting, online voter registration and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds in Massachusetts.

Under the new law, there would be an early voting period beginning 10 days before Election Day and ending two days before Election Day. Additionally, both online registration and pre-registration for teenagers coming up on their 18th birthday will make voting more convenient for residents of Massachusetts. Altogether, 32 other states so far have passed similar bills.

“I’m very excited,” said Massachusetts Sen. Karen Spilka, one of the many officials in support of the new bill. “I support the legislature being more proactive and taking steps to get more people to be involved and to vote.  [Voting] is a primary duty and honor of residents of both Massachusetts and the United States. The more we can do for increasing civic engagement and democracy and voter turnout is really important.”

Spilka said each aspect of the bill is critical and each part will have an influence on bringing more people to vote.

“Allowing people to vote [early] will really increase voter turnout because it is difficult for people to sometimes vote on just one particular day,” she said. “Particularly since we had such strict rules concerning absentee ballots … and those that are going to the polls will be happier on Election Day, the lines will be shorter … If 16 and 17-year-olds are able to preregister, the likelihood that they will vote when they turn 18 increases.”

Spilka said she hopes this bill will pass in a timely manner so that these new laws can be instituted for the next election.

“The more tools we have at people’s disposal to register and to actually vote will increase the likelihood that somebody will vote and that can only help us all,” she said.

However, a study done by Barry Burden, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison in collaboration with David Canon, Kenneth Mayer and Donald Moynihan, provides evidence that reforms for early voting will not have as much of an effect as many officials hope.

“Using data from the 2008 presidential election, we show that while some practices increase turnout, others have little effect, and the most popular single approach — early voting — actually decreases turnout,” the study states. “It appears that early voting on its own robs Election Day of its stimulating effects on marginal voters.”

According to the study, the thrill that surrounds Election Day is what often brings out many people who would not usually vote to the polling booths. Early voting decreases that excitement because a vast majority of voters, who are also the dedicated and consistent voters, are no longer voting on Election Day. In order to really increase voter turnout, early voting would need to be combined with the option of Election Day registration.

Some residents said they disagree with Burden’s study and say early voting will increase voter turnout either way.

“Assigning one day as Election Day takes the risk of preventing some people from voting due to travel or busyness,” said Lisa Guthrie, 52, of Dorchester. “Personally I would definitely take advantage of early voting.”

Hui Feng, 47, of Boston, said Burden’s study makes a good point and said an Election Day registration option would probably have the most effect on increasing voter turnout.

“That would make the whole process much simpler,” he said. “You just go there, register and vote all at the same time. The complicated process and inconvenience is what keeps a lot of people from not voting. Those who will take advantage of early voting are probably just the people who were going to vote anyway.”

Tony Harwood, 32, of Fenway, said the best improvements being made through the bill are the online registration and pre-registration options.

“It’s strange that we’re just now establishing online voting,” he said. “It’s definitely an inconvenience for 18-year-olds to have such a small time slot to register to vote between their birthday and the election, so pre-registration will make that a lot easier for them.”

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