Disenfranchised Voters and Civic Groups Challenge 20-Day Voter Registration Cutoff Law

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit challenging Massachusetts’ 20-day voter registration cutoff law, arguing that it has led to the arbitrary disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters, even though no one doubts they are otherwise qualified to vote in Tuesday’s election.

The case, filed in Massachusetts’ Suffolk Superior Court, was brought on behalf of the Chelsea Collaborative, MassVOTE, several individual registered voters, and a class of similarly situated individuals. The cutoff law bars otherwise eligible citizens from voting in an election unless they register at least 20 days before Election Day.

“Voting is an important part of improving the community, and we make sure the residents of Chelsea are well educated on the issues that affect them,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative. “When we go on door-knocking campaigns, we encounter so many people who are interested in the issues, but cannot vote because they didn’t register, since they didn’t know about the deadline. During this election, Chelsea residents have an opportunity to adopt the Community Preservation Act, which will create funding for historical preservation, green space and affordable housing, things that affect them directly.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts, the national ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and the law firm Ropes & Gray LLP are asking the court to declare the law unconstitutional, order the government to end its enforcement, and allow the named individual plaintiffs to vote in next week’s election.

“The fundamental right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy. Especially in the electronic age, voter registrations can be processed much faster than 20 days. In fact, more than 15 states — including half the states in New England — have established election-day registration. But in Massachusetts, our nearly three-week ‘Voter Cutoff Law’ continues to disenfranchise thousands of voters in every single election,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Racial Justice Program.

Indeed, it is individual voters who bear the brunt of this arbitrary 20-day Voter Cutoff Law: individuals like plaintiff Edma Ortiz, of Chelsea, who had to delay her registration because her mother suddenly died in Puerto Rico, or 21-year-old Wilyeliz Nazario Leon, of Revere, who faces the possibility of missing her first presidential election because she found out too late that she had missed the cutoff.

“MassVOTE wants as many eligible voters as possible to exercise their right to vote,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE. “We work to promote a culture of active political participation with an emphasis on historically disenfranchised communities. It’s so disappointing when citizens get engaged and excited about civic participation and find out they cannot vote because of the registration cutoff.”

Said Kirsten Mayer, partner at Ropes & Gray LLP, “Our team is not only seeking a preliminary injunction to allow our individual plaintiffs to vote in the November 8 election, but also permanent relief declaring the Voter Cutoff Law unconstitutional. The Massachusetts legislature can then establish a registration law ensuring that eligible voters are not left out of future elections. Voting is an important civil liberty, and this case is designed to protect it.”

Massachusetts’ new early-voting option demonstrates that a 20-day registration cutoff is arbitrary and unwarranted. Under the early voting law, anyone who registered to vote on October 19, 2016, was permitted to cast a ballot five days later when early voting began on October 24. Yet, under the Voter Cutoff Law, anyone who registered to vote on October 20 will not be permitted to cast a ballot 19 days later on Election Day.

“A 20-day cutoff turns people away just as some of the most significant campaign events begin to unfold. Campaigns make vigorous use of the last 20 days before an election, working into the final hours to identify and attract potential voters,” said Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Reporters too make intensive use of the last 20 days before an election, and in some cases, newspapers do not even make endorsements until just one or two days before an election. The only people who can’t take advantage of these final, critical days are voters. This law turns the constitutional right to vote on its head, and it cannot stand.”

Added Hall, “This unconstitutional Voter Cutoff Law disenfranchises Massachusetts voters in every single election, including primaries and local elections held at other times of the year. If they have not registered already or have moved and need to re-register, few people know far enough in advance about these elections to register before a 20-day cutoff. This particularly affects first-time voters and students, people in poorer communities, and the elderly. We are asking the court to remove this unnecessary and unconstitutional barrier and to simply let more people vote. This is good for voters, and good for our democracy.”

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