Massachusetts court strikes down 20-day registration deadline

Registering to vote in Massachusetts is set to get much easier after a judge ruled Monday that the state’s 20-day voter registration deadline disenfranchises thousands of would-be voters and violates the state constitution.

“The legislature may pass laws that are necessary to ensure voters’ qualifications of voters (sic) or to ensure security and order,” wrote Judge Douglas Wilkins of Suffolk Superior Court. “The evidence overwhelmingly shows no such necessity for the Massachusetts registration cutoff.”

Secretary of State William Galvin’s office had argued that the 20-day cutoff period, established by law in 1993, was needed to conduct orderly elections. But Wilkins found that advances in technology meant that was no longer the case.

As for how to fix the problem, Wilkins left it up to the legislature. It could order a shorter cutoff period ahead of elections. Or it could go further, requiring that the state adopt same-day vote registration by allowing voters to register on election day or throughout the early voting period.

According to Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s voting rights project, which challenged the deadline, an expert for the state testified during the case that if election day registration were allowed, it would boost turnout by between 50,000 and 100,000 per major election.

In 2016, according to state registration numbers, over 5,000 people registered during the 20 days before the November 8 election but after the cutoff, meaning they couldn’t vote in the election. In each of the previous two presidential elections, it was over 7,000.

Though Monday’s ruling is based on the state constitution, voting rights advocates expressed the hope that it would strike a broader blow against early registration deadlines that they say needlessly disenfranchise some Americans, especially the young and minorities.

“This decision is historic because it sends a message to other states that they cannot infringe on a constitutional right to vote by forcing voters to register several weeks in advance of an election,” said Alora Thomas-Lundborg of the ACLU in a statement.

In an editorial published earlier this month, The Boston Globe urged the state legislature to scrap the 20-day cutoff and adopt same-day voter registration. It cited the White House’s efforts to restrict voting as one reason for the urgency.

“Enhancing access to the ballot takes on particular significance now, given the threats to voting rights pushed by the Trump administration at the federal level,” the Globe wrote. “Enacting same-day registration is a golden opportunity for the Commonwealth to take a stand.”

Already Massachusetts ranks 6th among all states in turnout, with a rate of 67.2 percent last year.

Galvin, a Democrat, has said he backs same-day vote registration, though a change in the law would be needed.

Gov. Charlie Baker, A Republican, is less supportive. “If people want to vote, it’s not that hard,” Baker said recently.

 

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

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