Ahead of the Curve

Boston is taking steps in the right direction on voting reform.


Article created by The Century Foundation.

Finally, some encouraging election reform news to report, and it comes courtesy of the city of Boston. After being sued by the Department of Justice for noncompliance with the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, ultimately reaching a settlement, the city is responding in very positive ways.

According to the Boston Globe, Mayor Thomas Menino is taking an aggressive and multipronged approach to increasing participation by those communities that continually lag behind: minorities, language minorities, and young people. And his proposed initiatives are right on target.

First, most importantly, the mayor is promoting Election Day registration for the city, which it can do by petitioning the legislature. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that Election Day registration significantly boosts participation, especially among younger people. This novel idea of taking the initiative on such a reform at the local level is one that other cities and localities ought to consider seriously.

Second, Menino is going after young voters more directly by targeting high schools. Although plans are vague for now (the mayor plans to have a full-blown press conference on this soon—stay tuned), voter registration drives will be aimed at high school students. This echoes the recent excellent suggestion made by one of the members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Ray Martinez—automatic registration of all high school seniors. Menino might well want to consider taking the bolder step of working toward that goal.

The Boston Globe also reports that the city is looking into making working at the polls part of the high school curriculum. Numerous organizations, election administrators, and advocates have recommended high school poll workers (see here and here), and many jurisdictions are already doing it. Hiring student poll workers not only improves upon the woeful state of high school civic education—it is also a way to get a younger, more computer-savvy generation of workers operating the increasingly technologically complex election system. Boston’s Election Department has told me that they also intend to recruit bilingual high school students to work as translators at the polls.

Finally, the city is going to do more to reach out to language minorities to get them engaged in voting. These measures are clearly necessary for the city to comply with its agreement with the Department of Justice, but they are a promising step forward nonetheless. Part of this plan includes appointing “language liaisons” from the community who will be tasked with recruiting other multilingual poll workers and increasing voter turnout among minority language voters. Boston, and other cities with a diversity of languages spoken, would do well to look to Los Angeles as a model for reform. Los Angeles has a unique program in which the registrar and her office and elections officials work cooperatively with a formal coalition of community organizations, called the Community Voter Outreach Committee, to ensure effective language minority outreach and services at the polls. Among other activities, the committee helps administrators identify needs among language minority voters and helps pinpoint which voting sites are most likely to have voters in need of assistance. Analysis suggests that approach has been a success.

According to Boston’s Election Department, other ideas they are mulling include translating their Web site into other languages (it is currently available in Spanish), working with the local ethnic media to help spread the news about the elections and other civic-related information, and using the “mainstream” media such as Craigslist, the Boston Neighborhood Network Television, and the local newspapers to help with general voter outreach. Other avenues being used and/or considered include doing voter registration drives at new citizens swearing-in ceremonies, community events and celebrations (such as the August Moon Festival in Chinatown and the College Fest), and City Hall-sponsored events (such as the New Bostonians Community Day). These are all good ideas worth pursuing.

In these times where we see increasing efforts to suppress voter participation, through restrictions on registration and identification requirements, and so on, it is refreshing to be able to report that some officials are at least trying to increase citizen involvement. I look forward to keeping an eye on what goes on in Boston and whether officials there are able to accomplish the goals they have publicly set out for themselves.