MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law Monday that will allow voters to register to vote on Election Day beginning in 2017.
The same-day voter registration bill, S.29, makes Vermont the 14th state to allow last-minute registration. Advocates say it will boost voter participation in elections.
“It’s so important because for the greatest democracy in the world, the number of people who vote in elections is lower than it should be and hurts our democracy because it’s so low,” Shumlin said before signing the bill at Montpelier City Hall. “One thing that we all know is that if you give folks access to voting, not barriers to voting that have become so fashionable is state after state in America, but access to voting, the numbers go up and democracy is healthier as a result.”
Until Jan. 1, 2017, voters in Vermont must be registered to vote on the Wednesday before an election if they want to cast a ballot. Allowing voters to register at the polls as improved participation where it is already allowed, Shumlin said.
“The numbers all show that with same-day voter registration the numbers go up anywhere from 7 and 14 percent. That is a huge accomplishment to ensure that our democracy remains healthy,” he said.
Many town and city clerks around Vermont have been opposed to the idea, believing it will lead to administrative problems. Clerks expressed concern in testimony to lawmakers that voters could potentially vote in two locations, or perhaps register in the wrong district.
But Montpelier City Clerk John Odum said it will remove a barrier that has prevented some people from voting.
“From my perspective as a clerk it’s, in a sense, a small thing, because this is what we do. This is what we do as Americans. It’s our birthright to choose our leaders, to make our decisions, and this is what we do as clerks,” Odum said. “We are responsible for maintaining a trustworthy system that puts as little interference between Americans exercising that birthright as possible.”
Others, including some lawmakers, have been opposed because they believe it will lead to voter fraud. Voters will be able to register at the polls on Election Day without identification.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said voter fraud has not been a problem, however.
“It’s nonexistent. It really doesn’t happen. The really true voter fraud is when someone is denied the right to vote,” Condos said.
“This is a voters’ rights bill,” he added. “We have more issues, more times where people are denied and they’re eligible, they’re denied the right to vote, than voter fraud.”
House Speaker Shap Smith, a strong proponent of the new law, said many states are looking to restrict voters’ rights. Vermont’s new law should serve as example, he said.
“Throughout history we have seen the way that you restrict the rights of people who are without power and that is by restricting the right to the ballot box,” Smith said. “This is an important step in the right direction, the direction that we should be going throughout the country, and when many of my colleagues are working to restrict access to the right to vote, I am proud today to have a bill go in to law that allows people easier access to the right to vote. That should be happening around the country. It’s not.”
The law will take effect in 2017 to give clerks time to familiarize themselves with a new statewide voter checklist system. It also allows the new policy to take effect after the 2016 presidential election when voter turnout is expected to be high.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group and other advocacy groups were strong advocates for the law.