After veto, voting registration bill may get second chance

A bill aiming to increase voter participation in Rhode Island by allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote was vetoed by Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 in July, but may have a second chance if legislative leaders convene a special session later this month.

If introduced, House Bill 6215 would be identical to a bill passed by the General Assembly and vetoed by Carcieri earlier this year. The bill would not lower the voting age in Rhode Island, but instead would allow young people to register to vote earlier. Early participation makes subsequent voting more likely, said Fair Vote Rhode Island director Ari Savitzky ’06, a former Herald opinions editor.

“That first election, when you’re 18 or 19, is the most important … in terms of setting that pattern for becoming a lifelong participant,” Savitzky said. Minnesota, Maine, Oregon, Hawaii and Florida have similar laws on the books.

Currently, residents of Rhode Island can register to vote if they will be 18 by the next election day. Under HR 6215, Rhode Island residents as young as 16 would be able to pre-register early and be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18.

The bill would make it harder for the state to keep accurate voter registration rolls and prevent voter fraud, Carcieri said in a July press release upon vetoeing the bill. He added that yearly registration efforts at high schools and the ability to register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles have already made it easy for young voters to register.

Rep. Edwin Pacheco, D-Dist. 47, the bill’s primary sponsor, said HR 6215 is Rhode Island’s chance to be an example for the rest of the nation in terms of voter participation. Though Pacheco said he understands the governor’s concerns, he called them “small excuses” for vetoing the bill.

Pacheco said he hopes the veto will be overridden. He said he has met with legislative leaders to discuss the prospect of a vote at a special session this fall, but said there has been no definitive answer on whether that session will take place.

Over 50 other vetoed bills will vie for second chances to become laws if a special session is called. Under Rhode Island’s constitution, it takes three-fifths of the members of the General Assembly present to override the governor’s veto.

Savitzky called Carcieri’s veto message “a good sound bite” but said it has nothing to do with registering new voters.

Fair Vote, a national non-partisan organization working on voting reform issues, is currently undertaking a campaign to urge the General Assembly to pass the bill by encouraging voters to write letters and call their representatives. Savitzky, the sole staffer of Fair Vote’s Rhode Island bureau, has no office and often works at coffee shops with free wireless Internet access, he said.

The Brown College Republicans were among 19 organizations signed on as supporters of the bill in a letter Savitzky recently sent to the State House urging leaders to override the governor’s veto.

Pratik Chougule ’08, vice president of the College Republicans, said Savitzky approached the group about supporting the bill and “made a pretty good case” for it. The group’s members knew it would hurt their cause, since young voters tend to be more liberal, but voted for it anyway, Chougule said, .

“Democracy is a worthwhile cause even if it may hurt our political agenda in the short term,” he said.

Though he generally supports Carcieri, a Republican, and agrees that voter fraud is a problem, Chougule said he does not support Carcieri’s reasons for vetoing the bill.

Democracy Matters, a group Savitzky was a member of during his time at Brown, also signed the letter he sent to legislative leaders. Although the group focuses on campaign finance reform, all election reform movements work together toward the common goal of a better democracy, said Jon Bogard ’09, a member of the group.