Local city and town clerks are looking for guidance as the state develops methods and regulations to automatically register eligible voters in time for the 2020 presidential elections.
“I think it’s going to unfold as we get closer,” said Fitchburg City Clerk Anna Farrell. “We want everything to be clear as we move forward.”
Gov. Charlie Baker signed the law to enact automatic voter registration earlier in the month.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles, MassHealth, and the Health Connector will be the agencies that automatically register residents who meet the qualifications to vote. There is an option to opt out.
Automatic registration is expected to be in place before the next presidential primary, said Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bill Galvin, whose office oversees voting and elections.
There are a lot of steps along the way and a work will begin soon, she said.
“It’s going to require significant training for local election officials, people at the agencies, and security upgrades,” O’Malley said.
The law says the state secretary will need to train all agency staff, provide forms, and equipment to carry out voter registration while complyin with state and federal laws.
The state secretary will also provide mandatory training for all registrars, clerks, election departments, or commissioners about how to ensure people who are registered automatically meet the qualifications of a voter, according to the state law.
O’Malley said there won’t be changes for the people who go to their local offices to register in person or for those who register online.
Election offices or local clerks already receive voter information from the motor registry.
Although some clerks have experience working with voter information sent by the RMV, those like Farrell want to know that the other agencies that automatically register voters will do so adequately.
She wants the agencies to take all necessary steps and provide voters with notices to fully complete their voter registration. If not, voters might end up at the city clerk’s office seeking help, Farrell said.
Former Townsend Town Clerk Sue Funaiole said the agencies should strive to get information that is correct down to the street name.
“I’m sure the concern is that it’s all done accurately,” she said.
The regulations for automatic registration have not been drafted yet, O’Malley said.
There will be public hearings, she said, and the office plans to work with clerks and local election officials about what changes will be made.
Farrell wants to make sure her office understands any new technology and how to clear up glitches before automatic registration is introduced.
Similarly, Ayer Town Clerk Susan Copeland will be looking out for the regulations to learn what preparations her office will need to make.
“You can do what you can to plan, but at some point you’ll have to go with the flow,” she said.
With a town with a population of about 7,000, Copeland is confident that the clerk’s office will be able to handle an increase in registration and voting.
She also anticipates that residents will have questions about the new system. Copeland wants to make sure her office can help educate them about how it works and what options are available to them.
The goal of the automatic voter registration law is to promote greater voter participation in elections and to “prevent erroneous disenfranchisement of eligible voters,” according to the state law.
It also looks to increase the accuracy of the register of voters, protect voter information, and prevent voter registration fraud.
Automatic voter registration could add up to 700,000 eligible Massachusetts voters who currently aren’t registered to the rolls, according to Common Cause, a nonprofit that supports government reform efforts.
The state’s automatic registration law is among issues Common Cause supports.
“It is one of the strongest in the country and will make your voter registrations system more efficient, accurate, and secure while at the same time improving voter participation,” said Executive Director Pam Wilmot in an Aug. 10 statement. “In these times, all of these goals are important.”
As directed by the law, the state secretary will write an annual report for the Legislature’s Committee on Election Laws with the number of new voters added to the statewide list, the total number of voter records on the list, and number of people who opted out of automatic voter registration.
Thirteen states and Washington D.C. have automatic registration.
Most register voters through their respective motor vehicle departments. Some states additionally use their health insurance connector or other agencies to register voters, which is what Massachusetts will do.
Oregon added 375,000 voters through automatic registration within the first 18 months of enacting its law, according to a 2017 survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
In New England, Vermont passed an automatic voter registration law in 2016 and Rhode Island followed the year later.
Within six months of when Vermont enacted its law, more than 12,000 voters were added to the rolls, according to a 2017 press release from the secretary of state’s office. There were about 7,700 voter registrations during the same time span in 2016.
Rhode Island’s automated registration was implemented in mid-June, said Joe Graziano, a spokesman from the Department of State.
He said within the first month of implementation, there was a 156 percent increase in voter registrations compared to the previous year. That increase accounts for new voters and updates such as address and name changes.
Connecticut enacted automatic registration through an agreement between the Secretary of State’s Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Since the program started in August 2016, nearly 200,000 new voters have registered through the DMV, said Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.
Funding for new hardware to make the process fully automatic was approved in February, he said, it should be implemented by late summer of 2019.
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