In Boston's 2015 general election, more than 1,000 people who registered to vote couldn't — because they hadn't registered early enough, according to the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
Massachusetts law requires residents to register to vote at least 20 days before an election in order to cast their ballots. But the ACLU disagrees with that deadline, and is taking the state to court to change it.
On Wednesday, a Suffolk Superior Court trial begins in the ACLU of Massachusetts civil case that challenges the registration cutoff date. Rahsaan Hall, a staff attorney with the ACLU who has been working on the case, explains the issue.
What is the issue the ACLU has with the current law?
The concern is that the 20-day deadline is completely arbitrary and disenfranchises thousands of voters every election who are not able to vote because they did not register before that 20-day registration cutoff. The unfortunate reality is that a lot of people, a lot of media outlets and a lot of campaigns actually emphasis their outreach initiatives within the last week or so before the election — and that’s well after the cutoff.
Who is affected by the deadline?
There's a particular concern for communities that are disproportionately impacted by this registration deadline: low-income people, elderly people, students, younger people and people of color.
There are a whole host of reasons why people would miss a deadline that is 20 days out from election. It’s not so much a statement on their commitment to democracy, but more a statement about the barriers that exist because of the complications of people's lives, and as a democracy we should be doing our best to facilitate access to the polls for as many eligible people as possible.
How does Massachusetts compare to other states?
I would say we’re behind given the technological advancements that have been made to facilitate election-day registration. There are a wide range of registration cutoffs, but there are several states that have election-day registration, including New Hampshire and Wisconsin, which are states of comparable size and population.
What is the ACLU’s hope for this trial?
This lawsuit is to challenge the constitutionality of the arbitrary 20-day voter registration cutoff. This is a bench trial, meaning a judge is hearing the case, so our hope is that judge declares that the 20-day voter registration cutoff is unconstitutional. If the judge does that, then the ball is in court of the legislators to come up with a new registration deadline.
How would changing the deadline affect Massachusetts?
It would increase voter turnout. More people would have access to polls, more people who got engaged in a campaign and the political conversation in the days leading up to the election date would not be prohibited from casting a ballot because of missing the registration cutoff.
In the city of Boston, I think there were 1,500 people who registered after the registration deadline but before the election [in 2015], so that's 1,500 people who didn’t get to vote in Boston's general election.
Was there anything specific in the 2016 election that prompted this suit?
No, it’s just the concern about increasing access to the polls and allowing more people to engage in democracy. Democracy is better served when more people can participate in it.