The Massachusetts Legislature is expected to vote in the next several days on two proposals that would make democracy, well, more democratic. One of these would provide for the direct election of presidents by national popular vote; the other for same-day voter registration, allowing previously unregistered citizens to qualify at their polling places on Election Day. The Phoenix urges the legislature to adopt both.
The national popular-vote proposal would not replace the Electoral College; rather, it would modify its procedures.
The popular-vote plan is an interstate compact, a type of state law allowed by the US Constitution that enables states to enter into a legally enforceable contract to undertake agreed joint actions, such as electing a president.
The compact would take effect only when similar legislation has been enacted by states collectively possessing a majority of electoral votes — that is, 270 of the 538.
Those states will then vote as a bloc for the winner of the national popular vote, guaranteeing a supermajority of electoral votes and thereby preventing the candidate who receives the fewest popular votes from ending up in the White House, as was the shameful case in 2000. It would also eliminate the possibility that now exists of the election being thrown into the House of Representatives — where each state has one vote (regardless of population) — if no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College. And it would force presidential candidates to campaign nationwide, instead of concentrating their efforts in a handful of so-called battlefield states.
So far, the bill has been approved by the Massachusetts House of Representatives and awaits action by the State Senate. Around the nation, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland have already approved national popular-vote legislation. And in 20 other states, one body of the respective legislatures has also done so. The State Senate here should approve the bill.
Same-day voter registration is an easier concept to understand, but it faces a more uncertain fate on Beacon Hill. As this newspaper noted when it endorsed the idea back in April, voter turnout is depressingly low. Massachusetts ranks only 21st in the nation in this respect. The idea of making it easier and more convenient to register voters, by allowing those with proper identification to do so at the polls, should be a no-brainer.
During the past several weeks, most of the operational kinks in the pending legislation appear to have been worked out. Senate President Therese Murray favors it. Secretary of State William Galvin tells the Phoenix he supports it, although some procedural concerns linger. If a recent report in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette is any indication, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi appears not yet to be sold.
DiMasi seems concerned that Galvin remains concerned that the $200,000 allocated in the state budget for the measure will not be sufficient to administer the plan properly. Since Galvin knows what he’s talking about and DiMasi respects Galvin’s opinion, there is a simple solution: enact a supplementary appropriation of the additional $200,000 to $400,000 needed to make this happen smoothly.
There is no question that economic times are dire and money is tight on Beacon Hill, as it is elsewhere. But this is not a frivolous expenditure. Same-day voter registration most likely will be the greatest boon to citizen participation since 18 year olds were given the vote in 1971. It could benefit as many as 250,000 citizens in this year’s presidential election, which is the most exciting and hotly contested in recent memory.
DiMasi’s measured response to the idea of same-day registration no doubt reflects the anxiety of some legislators who are nervous about the prospect of more voter participation, because they see it as a future threat to their jobs, their incumbency. Legislative leaders from time to time give cover to their less imaginative or more timid colleagues. Now that the bill has been fine-tuned to Galvin’s satisfaction, it is time for DiMasi to step out of the shadows and put an end to the legislative kabuki.
Wisconsin, Maine, and Minnesota have had same-day registration for 30 or more years. New Hampshire, Idaho, and Wyoming have had it in place since 1993. It is time for Massachusetts to join their ranks.