Court ruling renews push to streamline voter ballot access
By STEVE LeBLANC
Jul. 26, 2017
BOSTON (AP) — Efforts to streamline access to the ballot in Massachusetts are picking up steam after a court tossed out a state's 20-day voter registration cutoff deadline.
Voting right advocates say they're renewing their push for two measures, including one that would let eligible voters register on Election Day and a second that would create a new automatic voter registration system.
The rekindled interest comes after Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins ruled Monday that the requirement that voters register at least 20 days before an election violates the Massachusetts Constitution and potentially disenfranchises thousands of would-be voters.
Activists, many of whom pushed for the state's adoption of early voting during last year's election, see the ruling as an opening.
"It breathes new life into that debate," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
The group is one of several — including the League of Women Voters, Massachusetts, MASSPIRG, and MassVOTE — that have lobbied for additional changes to the state's voting laws.
One, Election Day registration — or same-day registration — would let voters register to vote and cast their ballots on Election Day or during the early voting period.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia — including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine — currently offer same-day registration.
A second proposed change — automatic voter registration — would create a system that automatically updates a voter's information whenever an eligible voter alerts one of several state agencies of a change of address or other pertinent changes.
The agencies include the department of housing and community development, the department of revenue, the department of higher education, and all public institutions of higher education. The bill would also allow a voter to waive those updates, if they want.
Backers say the goal is to help ensure more of the state's nearly 700,000 eligible citizens who are not registered to vote are able to cast ballots on Election Day. Voters could opt out of the system, if they want.
"From our perspective the best solution is Election Day registration, along with automatic voter registration," Wilmot said.
The Massachusetts Senate passed same-day registration in 2014 and has pushed for an automatic voter registration system. Wilmot said an automatic voter registration bill also has 81 co-sponsors in the 160-member House.
Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg said the court decision shows the time is right to modernize the voter registration system.
"Our best options are automatic voter registration and same day registration," Rosenberg said Monday.
Some voters agree.
Julia Daly, a 31-year-old teacher from Cambridge, voted in last year's election and said she wants the state to take steps to make it easier for voters to cast ballots in Massachusetts elections.
"I think 20 days isn't lenient enough," Daly said. "I think there should be same day registration unless there's a much more pro-active effort to inform people about the 20-day cutoff in multiple languages."
Not everyone is embracing the ruling.
Democratic state Secretary William Galvin, who oversees the state's elections, said he plans to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court, saying it will spark administrative chaos.
"It is a very ill-considered opinion," he said.
The state last year embraced early voting.
The change allowed voters to begin casting ballots on Oct. 24, just five days after the Oct. 19 registration cutoff. Wilkins noting the change in his ruling, saying it undercuts the argument that the state needs to maintain a 20-day cutoff.
More than 1 million Massachusetts voters cast ballots before Election Day last year.
If the SJC sides with the lower court and rules the 20-day cutoff unconstitutional, it could force lawmaker's hands. At that point, there would effectively be no voter cutoff rule in effect.