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ACLU sues over Mass. voter registration deadline

Massachusetts residents had to register to vote by Oct. 19, nearly three weeks before Election Day. The civil rights organization called the deadline “arbitrary.” Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

The ACLU of Massachusetts has filed suit against the Secretary of State’s office, saying the state’s voter registration deadline disenfranchises eligible voters from casting ballots on Nov. 8.

Massachusetts residents had to register to vote by Oct. 19, nearly three weeks before Election Day. The civil rights organization called the deadline “arbitrary,” and pointed to the state’s new early-voting period as proof. Anyone who registered by the deadline was allowed to vote five days later when early voting began, but the required period between registering and voting on Election Day is 20 days.

“The 20-day deadline is arbitrary,” Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Racial Justice Program, said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re asking that the court declare the 20-day voter cutoff law unconstitutional and to allow our named plaintiffs to vote in this election.”


The suit was brought on behalf of the Chelsea Collaborative, MassVote, and three registered voters. It was filed in Suffolk Superior Court on Tuesday. The suit asks the court to declare the state’s law unconstitutional and allow those individuals named in the suit to vote next week.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for Monday.

A spokesman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin said the office does not comment on pending litigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the national ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and the law firm Ropes & Gray are representing the plaintiffs, who are suing not just the state but also the election commissioners of Revere, Chelsea, and Somerville.

The current voter registration cutoff law was enacted in 1993 and is outdated, especially in the digital age when registrations can be processed faster than 20 days, the ACLU said.

According to the suit, more than 14 states, including Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, allow voters to register on Election Day. There are other states that have cutoff periods further out than Massachusetts — for example, Virginia requires voters register 22 days before Election Day — and a handful with shorter ones. New York’s constitution says voters must register at least 10 days before the election.


The Massachusetts Constitution does not require voters be registered by a specific date, though courts have determined a deadline is appropriate to ensure orderly elections as long as it’s “as close to the actual election as possible,” the suit argues.

Three weeks, the suit says, is too far out. The cutoff kicks in just as campaign activity, media coverage, and get-out-the-vote efforts ramp up, the suit says.

The lawyers arguing the case want “permanent relief declaring the Voter Cutoff Law unconstitutional,” Kirsten Mayer, a partner at Ropes & Gray, said in a statement. “Voting is an important civil liberty, and this case is designed to protect it.”

The executive directors of MassVote and the Chelsea Collaborative — nonprofits dedicated to educating and mobilizing voters in underrepresented communities — said they often encounter people who want to vote but can’t because of the deadline.

So a significant portion of their efforts are dedicated to registering people to vote, money and time the suit says could be better spent educating people on ballot issues such as expanding charter schools or legalizing marijuana.

“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,” Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, said in a statement.


Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, MassVote’s executive director, said in an interview that her office regularly fields calls from voters wondering if they still can vote despite the deadline passing.

“And the answer is really no, and it’s absolutely unfair,” she said, adding that her organization and others have advocated for the state to enact Election Day registration “for forever.”

“It is something we’re totally interested in because it’s the total stopgap to everybody being able to vote on Election Day,” she said.

In the meantime, voters like Edma Ortiz of Chelsea, a plaintiff in the suit, won’t be able to vote on Tuesday unless the court intervenes.

Ortiz works nights and sleeps during the day, making it difficult to register to vote during regular business hours. And registering online was out of the question because she doesn’t have a computer, the suit said. Then, her mother died suddenly and she had to fly to Puerto Rico for the funeral.

When she went to register on Oct. 20 — the day after the deadline — the Chelsea Collaborative told her that she’d missed the deadline.

Another plaintiff is Wilyeliz Nazario Leon, who is finally old enough to vote in a presidential election.

The 21-year-old moved to Revere from Puerto Rico in August and registered to vote before leaving the island, but the suit said she “was completely unaware” that time was running out for her to re-register in Massachusetts.


She too missed the deadline and now, the suit said, won’t be able to “weigh in on issues that are of interest to her, including immigration and education.”

The third named plaintiff is Rafael Sanchez, who has lived in Somerville since 2005. He was picking his grandson up from daycare on Oct. 20 when he found out that the registration period had expired.

He registered to vote anyway, crestfallen at knowing he wouldn’t be able to cast a ballot on Tuesday.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.