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In ACLU lawsuit, judge OK’s three voters who registered late

A judge on Monday found the state’s 20-day voter cutoff law disenfranchised three voters who registered after the state’s deadline and ordered the secretary of state to allow them to cast provisional ballots on Election Day.

The order applies only to the three plaintiffs who were part of a lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU of Massachusetts, which argued that the state’s voter registration deadline unconstitutionally disenfranchises eligible voters from casting ballots on Nov. 8.

Other late registrants should not expect to show up at their polling precinct Tuesday and vote.

A larger question — prompted by the lawsuit — remains about the constitutionality of the state’s voter cutoff law. The judge did not rule on that Monday.

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Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins wrote that he plans to reach a final decision on voters’ rights to cast ballots in the federal election by Nov. 11 and in the state and local elections by Nov. 20.

Still, he said, they should be allowed to vote provisionally on Election Day.

“In short, the present state of the record shows no real reason, grounded in data, facts, or other evidence, why the Commonwealth accomplishes anything by implementing a 20-day deadline that deprives the individual plaintiffs of their right to vote,” he wrote.

Massachusetts residents had to register to vote by Oct. 19, nearly three weeks before Election Day.

The ACLU of Massachusetts, which also brought the suit on behalf of the Chelsea Collaborative and MassVote, 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.

It’s absurd to think that it takes 20 days to process someone’s voter registration in today’s digital age, Kirsten Mayer, a partner at Ropes & Gray, argued in court on Monday. Her firm, along with the ACLU of Massachusetts and the national ACLU’s Voting Rights Project is representing the plaintiffs. They are suing not just the state but also the election commissioners of Revere, Chelsea, and Somerville.

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Election Day registration is “practical, easy, and available” in numerous states, Mayer argued. And while the plaintiffs are not asking Massachusetts to implement Election Day registration, they point to it as yet another example of the state’s 20-day cutoff being disenfranchising.

“If you cannot cast a ballot, you have no voice in this Commonwealth and in this nation,” Mayer said in court.

Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office is defending the state in the suit, said in a statement that Massachusetts’ cutoff is constitutional. She also said: “I fully support same day voter registration . . . We need to make the political process and participation in democracy as accessible as possible for all eligible voters.”

According to the suit, more than 14 states, including Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, allow voters to register on Election Day. Other states have earlier cutoffs than Massachusetts, and a handful have later ones.

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.

But Assistant Attorney General Juliana Rice argued in court that allowing the defendants to vote could undermine the integrity of the state’s voting process and bewilder those residents who had found themselves in a similar situation — registering after the deadline.

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“There will be a lot of confusion for people who were told they weren’t allowed to vote,” Rice said. “It calls into question the results and how the race was handled.”

The “last-minute special” request should be denied, the state argued. “The law is nondiscriminatory and fully disenfranchises no one.”

Wilkins disagreed, at least in regard to the suit’s three named plaintiffs: Edma Ortiz of Chelsea, Wilyeliz Nazario Leon of Revere, and Rafael Sanchez of Somerville.

“ . . . the Commonwealth has offered only a theoretical justification for some deadline — but no actual evidence showing why a twenty-day deadline continues to be rational in the 2010s, let alone why there are no less restrictive alternatives,” Wilkins wrote.


Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.