Securing Democracy

Gavi Wolfe is the legislative director at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

In response to the pandemic, the Massachusetts Legislature passed some crucial measures to increase ballot access. Those measures were temporary; the VOTES Act, a bill that the ACLU supports, would make them permanent. Why is that so important?

The pandemic exposed barriers to voting access that predated the COVID era, and the innovations we adopted in response to the pandemic have shown us a better way forward. In addition to instituting safeguards to protect public health at the polls, lawmakers extended opportunities for in-person early voting and—for the first time ever—established widespread mail-in voting. Because of mail-in voting, we saw record turnout across the Commonwealth during the last statewide election. Now we need to make these reforms permanent to continue that trend of improving access and increasing democratic engagement.

We’re also advocating for a new reform: Same Day Registration. Why is this a good thing for voting rights?

Same Day Registration means people aren’t barred from voting just because they didn’t register before an arbitrary cutoff date, or because of a problem with their registration that they discover when they show up to cast their ballot. It’s particularly crucial for communities with a lot of low-income voters, renters, and voters of color. No other policy has the same impact on equitable access and racial justice at the polls. Twenty other states have implemented Same Day Registration and we’re late to the party. Where voting is concerned, Massachusetts should be a leader, not a laggard.

We’re seeing a lot of attacks on voting rights nationwide. How is the ACLU fighting back?

We just had another round of redistricting, which means that states around the country are drawing new legislative maps. Unfortunately, this also means that we’re seeing a lot of gerrymandering, with lawmakers drawing districts that deliberately dilute the power of Black voters. Thankfully, the ACLU has filed lawsuits in five states so far—Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Alabama, and Ohio—to challenge these unconstitutional attacks on the principle of “one person, one vote.”

How can Massachusetts play a bigger role in the fight to preserve our democracy?

At its best, Massachusetts has always been a beacon of liberty for the nation, from reproductive freedom to marriage equality. The same should be true for ballot access. When we lead the way with concrete reforms, we provide a model for equity and democratic engagement that other states can replicate. Especially in an era when voting rights are under attack both here and elsewhere, the Commonwealth can showcase a different, better path.

What’s something you wish more people understood about voting rights?

From the very beginning, the history of voting rights in the U.S. has been about tearing down barriers and bringing us closer to our founding vision of government “of the people, for the people, and”—not least—“by the people.” That process was never just about formally guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of land ownership, race, or gender. It’s also about removing arbitrary, systemic impediments to participating in the democratic process at every level.