The Topline: Late Registration
Massachusetts is home to more than one hundred colleges and universities and is the birthplace of American democracy. (Yes, that’s right, Eagles fans.) Nonetheless, the State Supreme Judicial Court recently upheld a voter registration law that makes it harder for college students to vote in our state primary elections.
The SJC upheld a rule requiring Massachusetts voters to register at least 20 days before an election. The deadline had been challenged by Chelsea Collaborative, a social services nonprofit, who argued it was unconstitutional because it disenfranchised otherwise eligible voters. The court disagreed, although it did put the onus on the legislature to set the deadline no further out from the election than necessary to conduct the election.
The practical consequence of the ruling is that many college students in the state will remain effectively barred from voting in the state primary elections, which this year take place on September 4. That’s because many schools have move-in dates after the 20-day deadline, which is August 15. By the time students show up, it’s already too late.
A review of the 7 largest colleges in the Boston area showed move-in dates ranging from August 22 (Boston College first-year move-in date) all the way to September 2. All the dates fall at least a week after the registration deadline. So unless you registered to vote in a previous Massachusetts election, you’re out of luck.
Returning students who are already registered at another Massachusetts address can still vote at their old address. State law allows Massachusetts residents to vote “from a previous address in a state election for up to six months after you have moved, as long as you have not registered elsewhere.” That covers in-state students, who can still vote absentee in their hometowns if they are already registered. Returning juniors and seniors may have been around to vote in earlier elections. But younger students who were not old enough to vote in 2016 or 2017, or who are registered in other states are very likely to find themselves unable to vote in this primary.
Voter turnout among college students does tend to be lower than for the population as a whole, especially in midterm election years, and lower still in primaries. A recent Pew report found that millennial and Gen-X voters now comprise a majority of the electorate, but cast 21 million fewer votes than their elders in 2014. Thus we get phenomenon like Boston’s “isthmus of apathy”: Ward 21 Precinct 2, home to Boston University’s campus along a skinny stretch of Commonwealth Avenue between Brookline and the Charles River. In 2017, that precinct saw a voter turnout of 4 percent in an election where the average citywide turnout was 28 percent.
But 2018 may not be like other midterm years. High school students have mobilized mass protests for action on gun violence and are looking forward to voting for the first time. Analyses of some of the special and primary elections have shown higher turnout among young voters. One early analysis of the recent upset in New York’s 14th Congressional District found that turnout was up sharply in precincts that tended to have younger voters, and that that it helped the winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Here in Massachusetts, several candidates are mounting challenges to long-time incumbents, and would love to turn out younger voters to their cause.
More to the point, there is the larger principle of giving voters the opportunity to register to vote before an election. If young people want to vote, even in small numbers, we should allow them that right, even if it’s awkward and inconvenient.
One solution would be to allow voters to register on election day, rather than setting an arbitrary deadline weeks before balloting. More than a dozen other states have adopted same-day voter registration without an end to democracy. Perhaps it is time to do so here.
This calendar conflict would not even be an issue if not for Massachusetts’ very late primary date. Many other states have their primaries earlier in the year, when students would be wrapping up their previous academic year.
Short of shifting the primary calendar forward, setting a registration deadline that doesn’t conflict with the start of school seems like a simple step towards making voting easier and more inclusive. Just because the SJC ruled that the state’s 20-day deadline is constitutional doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do for voters. At a time where young people are engaged and clamoring for ballot access, we should be bending over backwards to give it to them.
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