Mass. 20-Day Voter Registration Deadline Is Constitutional, SJC Rules

Boston voters in 2016 (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Boston voters in 2016 (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The requirement that Massachusetts voters register at least 20 days before the election in which they hope to cast a ballot does not violate the state's constitution, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday.

Supporters of voting reforms, including Election Day registration and automatic registration, said the decision highlighted a need for lawmakers to act.

The Chelsea Collaborative v. Galvin lawsuit was filed in November 2016, seeking to allow three plaintiffs to vote in that year's state and presidential election though they registered less than 20 days before Election Day. The ACLU of Massachusetts, Chelsea Collaborative and MassVOTE argued the cutoff disenfranchises thousands of otherwise eligible voters.

A Suffolk Superior Court judge found the deadline unconstitutional, and Secretary of State William Galvin appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

In an opinion written by Justice Kimberly Budd, a Gov. Charlie Baker appointee, the SJC said the registration deadline "does not disenfranchise any voter."

"Those in the individual plaintiff's position were free to register prior to the deadline and would have been eligible to vote in the 2016 election had they merely looked into what is required to register and done so," the ruling said.

There was no dissent. A concurring opinion, written by Chief Justice Ralph Gants and signed by Judges Barbara Lenk and Frank Gaziano, argued that voting laws should be considered under a different standard of review.

Because state lawmakers in 1993 passed the statute imposing the 20-day "blackout period," the court assumed they have chosen up to this point not to change it, concluding that "an impartial lawmaker could reasonably believe" the deadline "still serves legitimate public purposes that transcend the harm to those who may not vote."

The court found "it would be rational" for lawmakers to conclude some deadline is necessary, and said the closer the deadline is to an election, the fewer people there are who cannot exercise their right to vote.

The ruling notes that a commission lawmakers established in 1993 to study the deadline never met, and that a task force formed under a 2014 elections law also did not meet and did not produce a report by its Aug. 1, 2017 deadline.

"Although the Legislature appeared to have a reasoned basis for requiring voters to register twenty days in advance of an election in 1993, the mechanisms put in place for a periodic review of that requirement seem to have failed," Budd wrote. "Thus, we have a concern that, given the passage of time, the reasoned basis for the twenty-day blackout period may need to be reconsidered."

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the decision "a blow, not just to Massachusetts voters, but to the democratic process," and urged the state Legislature to both change the registration law and pass a bill that's gaining momentum to ensure automatic registration when eligible voters deal with state agencies.

"Every election, Massachusetts' arbitrary voter cutoff law disenfranchises thousands of potential voters throughout the Commonwealth - a fact that the Supreme Judicial Court itself acknowledges in its ruling," Rose said in a statement. "So it is deeply troubling that the Court has allowed this disenfranchisement to continue, even though our Massachusetts Constitution protects the right to vote."

The House last week passed a bill that would automatically register eligible Massachusetts voters when they interact with state agencies like MassHealth, unless they opt out.

Bills were also filed this session to allow voters to register on Election Day. The Election Laws Committee included several same-day registration bills in an order for further study earlier this year, effectively killing them for the session.

Galvin said the court's ruling "will be of assistance in my fight to pass legislation that would change the laws in Massachusetts to allow same day registration."

Attorney General Maura Healey called on the Legislature to "seize this opportunity, starting with Automatic Voter Registration, and by making Election-Day Registration a reality in Massachusetts.

"As the court unanimously acknowledged, it is the state's obligation to continue to update our laws to ensure that every eligible voter has a full opportunity to exercise this essential right," she said in a statement.

Pointing to the support of Healey and other elected officials for same-day registration, Josh Zakim, a Boston city councilor challenging Galvin in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary, called it a "failure of leadership" that the case was brought to the Supreme Judicial Court.

"It was a year ago that Bill Galvin chose to appeal a Superior Court decision and fight to keep the state’s arbitrary 20-day voter registration cutoff," Zakim said. "That's a year lost to working proactively to implement a same-day voter registration system for Massachusetts. We now have, at least, another election cycle in which eligible Massachusetts residents have an additional, unnecessary obstacle to voting."

This article was originally published on July 02, 2018.



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