Registering Voters

Yesterday — a perfect sunny, almost summery Saturday the likes of which we’ve seen few of in recent weeks — I spent six hours at the West Tisbury library sitting behind a “register to vote” table.

This was part of Cape & Islands Vote 2018, a nonpartisan voter-registration effort hatched by members of Lower Cape Indivisible and focused on local libraries. Some 25 libraries participated, including all six on Martha’s Vineyard. On the Cape this was a three-day event, Thursday through Saturday, June 14–16. We Vineyard organizers decided to focus our attention on Saturday, June 16. I was the point person for West Tisbury.

We didn’t register any new voters in my town, but we did give out plenty of information about how to register online, how to apply for an absentee ballot, and the date of the Massachusetts primary: September 4, the day after Labor Day. We also checked some voters’ registrations online to be sure they were accurate and current.

One woman alluded to the recent Supreme Court decision that upheld Ohio’s voter-purge law: If you don’t vote in two consecutive federal elections then fail to return a snail-mail postcard confirming that you still live in the same place, you can be purged from the rolls. Massachusetts is not likely to contemplate doing any such thing, but she’s right: wherever you live, checking to be sure your registration is active and correct is a good idea.

Plenty of library patrons, and the library staff as well, commended us for doing what we were doing. I didn’t feel especially virtuous — spending six hours in the bright, spacious lobby of the West Tisbury library on a sunny Saturday is no hardship — but I do believe that it’s good to make the issue visible in a face-to-face way. Besides, I learned plenty about the voting rules and regs in my state. F’rinstance . . .

  • 16- and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote. Their town clerks will notify them and add them to the rolls when they turn 18.
  • Massachusetts voters can register or check their registration online on the secretary of state’s website.
  • Voters in any state that offers online registration (about two-thirds of them do) can

    QR code for

    register online via You can also sign up for an absentee ballot, and to receive notifications of upcoming elections. The ultra-complete registration kits each library point person received from the Cape & Islands Vote 2018 organizers included a supply of cards that on one side had 2018 election dates and registration deadlines and the secretary of state’s URL, and on the other a QR code that when scanned with a smartphone will take you straight to (Being smartphone-free and smartphone-illiterate, I learned that a QR-reading app is necessary to do this.)

  • Early voting for the general election starts on October 22. 

Hands-down the most challenging aspect of participating in Cape & Islands Vote 2018 was the nonpartisan part. Not wearing or displaying partisan paraphernalia was easy, despite my growing number of candidates’ buttons, stickers, and handouts and T-shirts directly inspired by the current administration. But the injunction was to not discuss politics at all, even when someone else initiated the conversation. This proved impossible, though we didn’t do it when anyone we didn’t know was within earshot.

Am I surprised? I am not. I’m willing to bet that 100% of the library patrons who commended us for setting up at the library were doing so not primarily out of an abstract belief that voting is a good thing but because voting is particularly important in 2018 because democracy, the rule of law, civil rights, the environment, and everything else is under attack by the current administration and the Republican Party. For sure that’s why I participated, and why I’ve been more involved in electoral politics since 2016 than at any time of my life since 1976, when I volunteered for the (successful) campaign to pass the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment.

As I blogged in November 2012, I still believe that compulsory voting is a very bad idea. You will not catch me uttering platitudes like “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Becoming more engaged in electoral politics has not changed my views on this. In fact, it’s made me more aware of how ingenious and persistent the Republicans have been in trying to suppress the vote of people who don’t support them and to rig elections in their favor, for instance, by gerrymandering and by closing polling places in areas that consistently vote Democratic, so that voters have to travel farther and/or wait in longer lines to vote.

Across the country, plenty of citizens don’t see their elected representatives except at election time, and they may not hear much about what those elected officials are up to. I’m lucky: my state rep and state senator are very accessible, and not just to those who, like me, worked on and/or donated to their campaigns. One of my U.S. senators, Elizabeth Warren, hosted a SRO town hall last summer; the other, Ed Markey, is doing one later this month (June 24, 4–5:30 p.m. at the M.V. Hebrew Center — be there!).

Without such accessibility and engagement, it’s not hard to understand why so many U.S. citizens think that “government” is something happening on another planet and that there’s zero connection between casting a vote and even being heard, let alone making a difference.

The upside of the 2016 presidential campaign and election, and all the horrors that have happened since, is that many, many of us realize that the country is in a very dangerous place, and — more important — we didn’t get there overnight. Great work is being done on several fronts to make voting easier and more meaningful. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former attorney general Eric Holder, is fighting to undo the outrageous gerrymandering that has favored Republican candidates. I Vote for America is promoting Democratic candidates for secretary of state (the official generally in charge of all things electoral) in states where the GOP incumbent has worked to suppress access to the ballot.

Many organizations, like Swing Left, Indivisible, Emerge, and Run for Something, have been encouraging, training, and/or supporting Democratic candidates at various levels — and the hugely increased number of Democratic candidates, especially Democratic women candidates, is one of 2018’s big news stories. Others, like my personal fave, Postcards To Voters, focus on getting out the Democratic vote for good candidates.

I don’t want to make voting compulsory. I don’t guilt-trip anyone who doesn’t vote. But I am doing my bit to make voting more meaningful, so that more non-voters will want to vote because they really do believe that, as I keep writing on my postcards, “Your vote is your voice.” And sure, if I’m volunteering to register voters, I’ll register all comers, even those who show up wearing a MAGA cap. But I’m not kidding myself that this is a nonpartisan issue — not as long as one party is fighting hard to restrict access to the ballot while the other is fighting hard to expand it.

Volunteer Susan Phelps (right) and me at the voter registration table, West Tisbury library, June 16, 2018.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Registering Voters

  1. Caroline says:

    I heard a story on NPR (I forget whether it was local or national and where these people were) after the Parkland shooting – so many teenagers were saying that they were unhappy with how our elected officials were handling guns, but when asked if they planned to vote, their answers amounted to something like “I never thought about it.” I found that very depressing.


  2. The hard part is making people believe that sometimes voting for the lesser evil is in fact voting for the LESSER evil….And maybe if that is disturbing more people should get involved.


    • It does sometimes happen that both (or all) candidates for an office are almost equally terrible — but how common is it really? IMO people reach for that “lesser of two evils” frame much too often, and as a cover for a hyper-fastidious ideological purity. I heard it much too often during the 2016 presidential campaign from people who should have known better. But you’re absolutely right: anyone who doesn’t like the choices on the ballot would do well to get involved long before election day because it really is possible to influence the choices available. As hundreds, maybe thousands of Democrats — many of them women — are demonstrating this year. 🙂


  3. “I don’t want to make voting compulsory. I don’t guilt-trip anyone who doesn’t vote. But I am doing my bit to make voting more meaningful…”
    YES! I’m with you.


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