Voters’ rights advocates argued in Suffolk Superior Court Wednesday that the state’s voter registration deadline is unconstitutional and deprives thousands of the right to vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative argued that the law, which requires individuals to register to vote 20 days before an election, is “unnecessary and arbitrary” and “has irrevocably excluded thousands of citizens from the democratic process.”
Last year, in the same case, the judge affirmed the right to vote of three individuals who missed the registration deadline, but did not answer the question of whether the law itself is unconstitutional. In his decision, Suffolk Superior Judge Douglas Wilkins wrote that the Commonwealth showed “no real reason, grounded in data, facts, or other evidence” that the deadline accomplished anything other than depriving the individuals of their right to vote.
Imposing a 20-day deadline is “overburdensome,” and imposing same-day registration would be a feasible alternative, said Kirsten Mayer, a partner at Ropes & Gray LLP, in her opening statement. Mayer said the burden is on the state to provide the least restrictive means of registering voters.
In response, attorneys for the state accused the plaintiffs of “asking the court to make a policy choice under the guise of constitutional analysis,” and described voter registration as “simple and straightforward.” Election officials in Revere, Somerville, and Chelsea are also named as defendants. In her opening argument, Assistant Attorney General Juliana Rice said it was incumbent on the court to decide whether the registration requirement poses a “severe burden” on voters.
The implications of the case are significant, and not just for Massachusetts, according to Daniel Tokaji, a constitutional law professor at Ohio State University who specializes in election law and voting rights.
“The empirical research shows that voter registration rules have a big impact on who votes and who doesn’t,” Tokaji said. “The evidence is stronger on registration than on any other election administration rule. So I’d say this is a big case.”
The Suffolk Superior Court’s ruling could be persuasive if voters in other states challenge registration deadlines, he said, adding to the potential significance of the ruling. In May, a federal judge curtailed a Georgia voter registration law that cut off registration 90 days before an election but did not rule on the constitutionality of a deadline itself.
The court on Wednesday heard testimony from two witnesses called by the ACLU, beginning with Gladys Vega, the executive director of Chelsea Collaborative, who testified to the chilling effect the 20-day deadline has on voters.
At Chelsea Collaborative, a social services organization, Vega oversees a project called the Chelsea Voter Initiative, which seeks to register and educate voters. She said that the existing registration deadline creates a small window of time in which to do voter outreach and register interested individuals.
“In September, we really need to energize, because we have very limited time. We have to work ahead of the 20-day deadline. If you talk to them in the summer, people just don’t care about the election — it’s too far away,” Vega said.
By contrast, Vega said, at an event the Chelsea Voter Initiative held late in October, after the voter registration deadline had passed, 40 to 50 people approached the organization and asked for help registering to vote.
“We don’t have to chase them down, they come to us,” she said.
The ACLU also called as a witness Barry Burden, the founding director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison . Burden cited a survey administered by the National Census Bureau that found that 15 to 19 percent of eligible voters in Massachusetts said they were not registered to vote because they had missed the deadline.
He also estimated that enacting same-day voter registration would increase voter participation by 8 percentage points and in particular would increase voting among typically underrepresented groups including Latinos, young people, low-income individuals, and those with lower levels of education.
“There are both costs and benefits associated with Election Day registration, but in my opinion, the benefits outweigh the costs,” Burden said.
The state has not yet cross-examined Burden, but in her opening statement, Rice, the attorney for the state, said that implementing same-day registration “would likely change the ease of voting we currently enjoy,” because it could open the door to a series of new requirements. More than a dozen states currently offer same-day registration. Voters in Wisconsin, for example, can register at the polls, but must bring proof of residence, a stricter requirement than what Massachusetts currently imposes, Rice said.
Wisconsin may serve as a model for the state — the ACLU will call the executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, Neil Albrecht, to testify about same-day registration practices. In turn, the state will call municipal clerks to testify about the burdens they currently face registering people to vote.
Testimony will begin again on Thursday and is expected to last through the week.