With many states now rolling back voting rights, it was disappointing to see the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently decline the chance to affirm the Suffolk County Superior Court’s ruling that the 20-day advance voter registration cutoff — which every year prevents thousands of eligible voters from casting a ballot — violates the right to vote explicitly added to the state Constitution by its author, John Adams.
The decision had one bright spot — the SJC did say the Legislature should review and update laws like this one. But the court’s opinion failed to acknowledge the registration deadline for what it really is: an outdated and arbitrary rule that unnecessarily deprives interested and eligible voters the opportunity to fix an issue with their registration prior to trying to vote. Instead, the SJC’s ruling focused on the cutoff’s use as an administrative deadline needed to process mail, online, or other registrations. But that line of argument is misleading.
Administrative deadlines have a purpose. A total cutoff doesn’t. Today 16 states have eliminated cutoff deadlines. These states have adopted the policy known as same day or Election Day voter registration. Their policies, tailored for voting in their state, ensure that all eligible voters who want to vote and have their voice heard can register or fix a registration problem on Election Day or during early voting.
North Dakota was first to eliminate the cutoff, in 1952. Minnesota, Maine, and Wisconsin followed in the 1970s. The change enabled a robust culture of voting that put them permanently at the top of high-turnout states. Iowa, Colorado, Illinois and others followed. Washington just eliminated the cutoff for 2019 and Utah eliminated it as of the fall midterm.
How big a problem are advance registration cutoffs? In Massachusetts, the Superior court estimated more than 118,000 Massachusetts voters didn’t vote because they missed the advance cutoff in the 2014 midterm. In contrast, after ending its cutoff, Colorado saw over 200,000 voters with a voter registration issue successfully cast ballots by using the options to register or update a registration before voting. The National Conference of State Legislatures says a state can expect up to a seven-point rise in turnout in state elections in the years after adoption. Even half that would mean that over 100,000 more voters in Massachusetts in 2018 and future elections would have a voice instead being of turned away.
A state like ours, with 5 million eligible voters, will have mistakes in adding people to the rolls. Errors can occur because voters, election clerks, Registry of Motor Vehicles workers, and registration-drive volunteers sometimes make istakes. And people can miss advance deadlines for many reasons. Especially for young and first-time voters, it’s often the process and not lack of interest. Why, when dealing with a right as fundamental as voting, should anyone young or old miss the chance to vote because of a solvable problem.
The job and constitutional mandate for the Legislature is not to place any undue burden on the opportunity to vote. There should be no restriction of any group, no poll tax, no test, and no outdated cutoff that needlessly prevents voters from fixing a registration issue and voting.
The SJC opened the door for reconsideration of current law. Even before the SJC decision, the lawsuit’s named defendant, Secretary of State William Galvin, endorsed Election Day registration. So have his party primary opponent, Boston councilor Josh Zakim, many state legislators, and nonpartisan organizations like ours.
This month the Legislature should pass the companion automatic registration bill that works at the front end to add more people to the rolls who use the services of the RMV or public agencies. Then start as soon as possible to engage stakeholders, from voters to election officials, to join the growing list of Election Day registration states and end the cutoff — starting in local elections in 2019 and fully in place for 2020.
We urge the Legislature to make Massachusetts once again an example to the nation, a beacon of democracy, and a national leader in encouraging all citizens to participate and vote.
Cheryl Crawford is executive director of MassVOTE. Gladys Vega is executive director of Chelsea Collaborative Inc. They were the lead plaintiffs in the case to end the 20-day voter registration deadline.