Massachusetts Voter-Registration Deadline Revived

BOSTON (CN) – The highest court in Massachusetts was unanimous Monday in upholding a voter-registration deadline of 20 days before an election.

“Because the deadline does not disenfranchise any voter, because the commonwealth takes sufficient steps to minimize the number of qualified voters who miss it, and because registration itself is sufficiently simple and accessible, we conclude that the deadline does not require the application of strict scrutiny,” Justice Kimberly Budd wrote for the court.

The groups Chelsea Collaborative and MassVote challenged the scheme in late 2016, joined in Suffolk Superior Court by five would-be voters who missed the Oct. 19 deadline to register in time for the general election that year.

Though Judge Douglas Wilkins granted the injunction to count their votes, and determined last year after a bench trial that the 20-day deadline was unconstitutional, the SJC reversed Monday.

“Those in the individual plaintiff’s (sic) 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,” Budd wrote.

Although the court found the deadline constitutional, it did note that the state Legislature may be overdue to reconsider the law.

“However, we further conclude that, having chosen to impose a deadline for voter registration prior to an election, the Legislature has a continuing duty to ensure that the deadline is no further from election day than what the Legislature reasonably believes is consistent with the commonwealth’s interest in conducting a fair and orderly election,” Budd wrote.

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, the executive director of lead plaintiff MassVote, criticized Monday’s decision.

“The SJC missed the point by focusing just simply on the registration deadline rather the complete cutoff of any opportunity to register and vote it really is,” Crawford said in a statement. “No one is against a deadline for a mail registration.”

Crawford said the problem was “the inability for an eligible voter to correct a mistake in their registration or a missed deadline when they go to vote as allowed in 16 states.”

Despite its point about leaving the matter to the Legislature, the SJC said it would give lawmakers the benefit of the doubt.

“There is nothing on the record before us to suggest that the Legislature’s standing joint committee on election laws has not continued to take a hard look at the deadline,” Budd wrote. “At the least, as the Legislature passed the statute imposing the current twenty-day blackout period, we can assume that the body has chosen, up to this point, not to change it.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called the ruling a clear sign to update the law.

“Voting rights are civil rights,” Healey said in a statement. “We thank the Supreme Judicial Court for its thoughtful decision. 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. I urge the legislature to seize this opportunity, starting with Automatic Voter Registration, and by making Election-Day Registration a reality in Massachusetts.”

State lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would allow for same-day voter registration, which Secretary of State William Galvin has openly supported even while appealing the ruling by Judge Wilkins that would have allowed for the same thing.

Chelsea Collaborative was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Ropes & Gray.

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