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June 16, 2005

Report shows vote flaws widespread

Jeremy Schwab

Thousands of would-be voters in Massachusetts showed up to the polls last November only to be turned away or forced to cast provisional ballots.

A report released last week by the voting rights group MassVOTE and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights sheds light on the problem and offers solutions.

The two groups’ analysis of voting access in 11 cities across the state is based on data collected by over 600 volunteer poll monitors. The report found that nine percent, or 3,643 of the 41,753 people surveyed at the polls said they were not allowed to cast regular ballots. Extrapolating from that number, the researchers estimate that 200,000 of the 3 million eligible voters who turned out last November experienced registration or other problems.

Most who said they were denied the chance to cast regular ballots found their names were not on the list of registered voters at the polling locations nearest their homes, usually because they had not changed their addresses with election authorities since moving. Others may have filled out registration forms provided by nonprofits or political parties who then failed to properly register them.

Representatives of MassVOTE and the Lawyers Committee argue that election-day registration would make voting easier by allowing those who have not yet registered to show proof of residency, such as a driver’s license or utility bill, upon arrival at the polls.

“Voter dis-enfranchisement doesn’t only happen in Ohio or Florida,” said MassVOTE Executive Director Juan Martinez. “These issues occur in every election in states across the country, including Massachusetts, and they need to be addressed. It’s a serious problem when nearly one in 10 eligible voters cannot cast a ballot on election day. Every citizen has a right to vote and to have their ballots counted.”

The Legislature has rejected previous bills calling for election-day registration, but this year’s push is backed up by substantial data thanks to the poll monitoring and the work of lawyers recruited to staff a hotline for voting rights complaints.

The issue is also being debated at the national level, with legislation in Congress calling for election-day registration.

“An interesting window has opened where more people are talking about EDR than in the past, and we are encouraged,” said Martinez during a State House press conference to announce the study last week. “It’s going to take a lot of work on our part and from our community partners. Ultimately, we’d like to see election-day registration happen in time for this fall’s elections.”

Black lawmakers on Beacon Hill are leading the charge for election-day registration and other voting rights reforms, with Rep. Gloria Fox sponsoring legislation calling for election-day registration along with Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem and Rep. Byron Rushing and Sen. Dianne Wilkerson teaming up to sponsor bills calling for a commission to study election reform and better training for poll workers.

One reason for the activism on the part of black elected officials may be that communities of color tend to have lower voter turnout, and lawmakers are hoping that reforms such as election-day registration would encourage more people to vote.

The six states that allow election-day registration, which include New Hampshire and Minnesota, have higher voter turnouts, according to the report’s authors.

The authors are calling on legislators to support better training of poll workers and reforms geared at improving recruitment of poll volunteers, including reducing the length of shifts, allowing non-citizens to serve as translators and conducting more outreach to area colleges.

The report found that many poll workers are not properly trained, causing problems for many voters.

For instance, poll workers in Lowell told would-be voters whose names did not appear on voting rolls that they could not give them provisional ballots. New voters with limited English found translators at some polls in the state, but not at others.

In Worcester, the election department gave out outdated and thus invalid registration forms in Spanish.

The report also found problems with some voting machines, though the problems were not widespread. Optical scanners stopped working for a time at polling locations in at least four cities, for instance.

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