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Judge rules state’s voter registration deadline is unconstitutional

A voter cast her ballot at a polling station in Cambridge in 2012. AFP/Getty Images

A Suffolk Superior Court judge on Monday ruled unconstitutional a state law that forbids people from voting in an election unless they have registered 20 days beforehand.

The law denies qualified citizens their right to vote, Judge Douglas Wilkins ruled.

In a lawsuit filed last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Chelsea Collaborative, a social services nonprofit, and MassVOTE, a nonprofit that registers people to vote, argued that the law is “unnecessary and arbitrary” and that it excluded thousands of citizens from voting.

Wilkins agreed, rejecting the state’s claim that removing the deadline would impose overly burdensome duties on local election officials.


“Eliminating the 20-day requirement would shift their work from one period to another,” he wrote, “but would not make it impossibly difficult to accomplish the necessary tasks, as shown by the early voting experience in Massachusetts and the election day registration experience in many other states.”

The state has already made arrangements to appeal the decision, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin said.

“We continue to work to make registration as easy and convenient as possible, but this decision would lead to a standardless procedure that would cause administrative chaos,” the spokeswoman, Debra O’Malley, said.

Wilkins’s ruling did not establish a new registration deadline. He wrote that “there is no need for additional relief at this point” and said there would be “ample time” for legislative review of the registration timeline.

The ACLU did not explicitly express a preference for a timeline, but several of the experts they called during the case, including the executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, testified about the merits of same-day registration. Fourteen states, including Wisconsin, currently allow it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The ruling is a significant one and could influence election law in other states, according to Justin Levitt, a professor of election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.


“The rationale is thought out in great detail,” Levitt said. “It’s quite a lot of analysis, and I suspect that other courts in other states may well look to this as persuasive in how they might interpret their own constitution.”

Levitt, who focused on voting rights as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, said it is “tough to tell” whether the state’s appeal has a chance at success, but noted that Wilkins went to great lengths to carefully detail his reasoning in his 92-page ruling.

“The judge was very careful. The court pointed to the fact that early voting starts five days after the registration deadline,” he said. “He showed that the state actually showed the ability to [prepare voter rolls] in five days, not 20.”

Testimony from local election officials seemed to influence his decision. Officials reported that they use a computer program that excludes the names of voters who registered in the 20 days prior to the election from a final voter printout, leading the judge to rule that there was little rationale for the deadline.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement that the ruling in the case, Chelsea Collaborative v. Galvin, was a “major victory for democracy.”

“The court agreed that the arbitrary 20-day voter registration cutoff law is unconstitutional and disenfranchises thousands of potential voters throughout the Commonwealth every election,” Rose said. “As the Trump administration is seeking to limit access to the ballot, Massachusetts should lead nationwide efforts to ensure that everyone has a right to vote.”


Catie Edmondson can be reached at catie.edmondson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @CatieEdmondson.