One In Four Belmont Voters Declared “Inactive” (And I’m One Of ‘Em)

If you went by your local polling station to vote this morning then, by the time you’re reading this, some of you probably had the exact same experience that I did when I strolled in to cast my vote for My Man Will Browsberger at Winn Brook School. Namely: the kindly poll worker kindly informed you that you had been marked an “inactive voter.”

Now, you can call me many things, but one thing you really can’t call me (with a straight face) is an “inactive voter.” Indeed, I’ve voted in almost ever local, state and federal election since I moved to Belmont. I blame my grandfather for that, who really considered voting a moral responsibility and made sure that his grandchildren saw it that way too. But I digress.

So I’m staring at this poll worker, who really was kindly and also an unpaid volunteer, and saying “huh?” This must be a mistake, of course, as I voted in the very last election. But no – I’m “inactive” as far as Belmont is concerned and need to go fill out a form to “reactivate myself” before I can cast a ballot.
So what gives? Well, it seems I’ve run afoul of State Law. In particular, MGL 51 Sect. 4, which requires towns to put any voter who doesn’t respond to the town census on an “inactive voter” list. What’s that? Well, it is what it sounds like – you’re a deadbeat voter who hasn’t dragged his (or her) butt to the polls for years. Or, you’re a besieged suburbanite who recycled both your Town Census (mailed in January) and the bold type warning/reminder card (mailed in October). I’m guilty as charged, as are about 25% of Belmont’s registered voters, according to the Town Clerk’s office. You heard it – 1 in 4, or about 4,000 of 16,000 registered voters in Town have been placed on the Inactive Voter list. Welcome to the club.

What can you expect with your membership? Well…once you’re on the list, in addition to getting the stink eye from poll workers, you have two State-wide elections to get reactivated, or you’re off the voter rolls altogether and have to re-register. Call it a fast track to disenfranchisement.

Don’t get angry. As I said, this isn’t some new law. As it turns out, this requirement has been on the books for years now, according to a spokesman from Secretary Galvin’s office, but it seems that towns haven’t been enforcing it. In recent months, the Secretary of State has been sending out reminders to Town Clerks about the need to enforce the law. Belmont, it seems, had been lax in enforcing the law since who-knows-when, so there was a huge spike in offending voters when they finally went through the list and figured out who was naughty and nice on this year’s Census. Other towns, which have kept up with the state requirement, might not see any spike on their “inactive voter” lists.

We’re not alone. This article from the Newburyport News (from October) says that a quarter of that Town’s voters, also, were going to be listed as “inactive.”
One problem with enforcing this statute is that it has the potential to cause gridlock at the polls, especially if, say, one in four voters is forced to divert from picking up their ballot to a separate table, fill out a (really confusing) “I’m an active voter” form and then return to the back of the line to go through again. It won’t matter much today in a single race election for a State Senate seat in the middle of December, no less. But you might expect some chaos come Nov. 2012 with both a Senate and Presidential race in the balance.

The other problem is that this law has the potential to disenfranchise a lot of active, responsible voters. I’ve been living in town for the better part of a decade now, and I think our home has been pretty good about filling out the Town Census when it arrives. (Though, obviously, not perfect.) While I understand the need to keep voter rolls accurate and try to capture voters who have moved out of town or changed addresses (and precincts), a smarter approach would be to have a “both-and” approach to declaring voters “inactive” rather than the current “either-or” approach. In other words: if you didn’t return your Town Census (also known as the Street List) AND you hadn’t voted in the last two state-wide elections, then your names goes on the Inactive Voter list. But if you had done one, but not the other, you stayed active. Thoughts?