Three Mass. Residents Allowed to Vote After ACLU Challenge

Brookline, MA 1st Mar 2016: A lady casts her vote on Super Tuesday. (Photo by: Nikita Sampath/BUNS)
Written by Zoë Mitchell

By Zoe Mitchell
BU News Service

A Suffolk County Superior Judge ruled that three Massachusetts residents that missed the voter registration deadline will be eligible to vote in Tuesday’s election. 

The three plaintiffs, Edma Ortiz of Chelsea, Wilyeliz Nazario Leon of Revere, and Rafael Sanchez of Somerville, were all a part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts against the Secretary of State’s Office. In the complaint, the ACLU says that the Massachusetts Voter Cutoff Law causes “needless and arbitrary disenfranchisement”.

The current registration deadline, which was set in 1993, is 20 days before the election.

The decision applies only to the three plaintiffs. A hearing was held at 2 p.m. today to continue discussion about the class-action portion of the lawsuit which more broadly challenges the Voter Cutoff Law. 

The lawsuit is also on behalf of MassVote, a nonprofit organization based in Boston that works to educate and empower voters especially people of color, and the Chelsea Collaborative, a nonprofit organization representing the community of Chelsea, Mass. They are not only suing the Secretary of State William Francis Galvin, but also the election commissioners of Chelsea, Revere and Somerville.

The ACLU argued that Massachusetts has the ability to process voter registration more quickly and efficiently, citing the Early Voting Law, passed in 2014, which allows voters to register five days before they are able to cast an early ballot.

“We are not asking this court to establish a new deadline. But this court is well abled to establish that 20 days is not the most reasonable means necessary,” said Kirsten Mayer, a partner at Ropes and Grey Law Firm, who is representing the plaintiffs alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the national ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Mayer argued to the judge that the current Voter Cutoff Law violates both the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the State’s Constitution, which provides that all people in the state “have an equal right to elect officers.”

“Without a vote, you have no voice in this community and in this nation. What distinguishes us from other nations is that we have that right to cast a vote,” Mayer said.

While Mayer made clear that the ACLU was not necessarily compelling the state to require registration the day of the election, they did make clear that 14 others states have established same-day registration.

Rebecca Murray, the attorney representing Galvin in court today, said that issuing three preliminary injunctions allowing the plaintiffs to vote on election day was a variance on the status quo, may confuse other voters who missed the deadline, and raise possible questions about the process and predictability of the rules governing the election.

She defended the state’s 20 day cutoff, saying that the deadline is on the shorter side in comparison to the 34 states that require early registration. She said that the state has made changes to make voter registration more accessible to residents with online voter registration forms, the option to vote early, and increasing voter outreach programs.

“We are certainly trying to move to increased participation with things like early voting,” Murray said.

The State did not dismiss the possibility to shortening the voter cutoff dates, but made clear that it would not be a simple process and would take time to implement.

“It is a possibility but not as easy as the plaintiff suggests,” Murray said.

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