GLADYS VEGA has been registering new voters in Chelsea since the early 1990s, an eternity in political time. But one of her biggest challenges has stayed constant.
“Every election, when I run campaigns in September, my team and I literally have to beg people to get registered to vote,” said Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, a nonprofit serving immigrants. “But come October, close to the election, they’re the ones chasing me. But by then, they can’t vote in that year’s election because of the deadline.”
Vega is referring to the voter cutoff law, nearly 25 years old, which establishes a deadline 20 days before Election Day for voters to register. The Chelsea Collaborative is part of a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts last November challenging the constitutionality of the cutoff. The trial, which started last Wednesday, is still underway.
Whether or not the current law is unconstitutional, though, there is no good argument for keeping the archaic 20-day rule in place. It only serves to discourage registration. Vega testified to that effect in the trial last week. She said that as media coverage on an impending election intensifies, voters naturally become more interested in it and want to register. By that time, however, they’ve missed the cutoff date. A US Census Bureau survey showed that nearly 1 in 5 eligible voters in Massachusetts said they were not registered to vote because they had missed the cutoff date. Many are not even aware that there is a deadline — ignorance about the law is rampant.
“We’re a state that has a law that needlessly disenfranchises voters,” said Matt Segal, the ACLU’s legal director. “The constitution recognizes voting as fundamentally important, so we didn’t think the cutoff law was compatible with that.”
The lawsuit alleges the deadline is arbitrary and that it disproportionately affects young, elderly, and low-income residents, and people of color. The secretary of state’s office, in charge of managing elections, defends the rule, saying it is necessary to ensure an orderly election process. However, Massachusetts already allows for early voting, which means one can register to vote and then cast a ballot five days later but still ahead of Election Day; also, electronic voter registration was recently enacted. The current capabilities of the state bureaucracy can surely process registrations without a 20-day deadline.
Experts say no other election reform is more effective at increasing voter turnout than allowing same-day registration. In the 2012 presidential election, for example, the average voter turnout was over 10 percent higher in states that let residents register on Election Day. More than a dozen states — including neighboring Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont — have enacted same-day registration.
The 20-day rule, as a matter of public policy, is hopelessly outdated. Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, Massachusetts legislators should make voting more friendly. Enhancing access to the ballot takes on particular significance now, given the threats to voting rights pushed by the Trump administration at the federal level. Enacting same-day registration is a golden opportunity for the Commonwealth to take a stand.