By: Erik Gerstner
“The right to vote is the most fundamental of all,” wrote Suffolk Superior Court Justice Douglas Wilkins on July 25, 2017, in Chelsea Collaborative v. Galvin, in which he declared the Commonwealth’s law imposing a voter registration cutoff twenty days before an election to fall afoul of the Massachusetts Constitution. A case spearheaded by the ACLU, Chelsea Collaborative sought to end the nearly twenty-five year old law, which according to the plaintiffs disenfranchised thousands of eligible voters each election cycle. Indeed, according to the Boston Globe, nearly 20% of eligible voters said they were not registered to vote because they had missed the early cutoff date. According to precedent set over a century ago in Kineen v. Wells¸ 11 N.E. 916 (Mass. 1887), any legislation diminishing the rights of a constitutionally qualified citizen to vote “must be unconstitutional, unless it can be defended on the ground that it is reasonable and necessary.” Wilkins agreed with the plaintiffs that the current law clearly is neither reasonable nor necessary, and thus must be struck down.
What Wilkins did not do, however, was order any specific relief, including, but not limited to a specific registration deadline; early voting; or mandate changes to the Massachusetts registration computer programs, citing that this is primarily a legislative matter, and that, at the time of the decision, there was ample time before the next election for the General Court (the Massachusetts legislature) to amend the laws in order to comply with the decision. Even before the decision was handed down, the General Court had already begun examining bills modifying the current voter registration. Of these, a likely candidate seems to be automatic voter registration, which would enroll nearly 700,000 eligible citizens of the Commonwealth who are not already registered. According to the above-linked article, the bill in June already had majorities in both the state House and Senate who were co-sponsoring it, suggesting that it will easily win passage through the General Court should it pass through committee successfully.
Proponents of automatic voter registration point not only to the massive increase in eligible, registered voters it would create, but also that it would ultimately save money, and increase the accuracy and security of elections. Opponents of the plan suggest that it would not increase actual voter participation; would increase the number of uninformed voters on election day; and would make Massachusetts’ elections more susceptible to outside interference. Note that in the above three debates, those arguing against automatic voter registration are all Republicans; statistics from existing automatic voter registration states suggests that such programs mostly benefit Democrats. Still, in a state like Massachusetts, which is overwhelmingly blue, such concerns likely carry less weight than they would in a more contested one like New Hampshire, for example.
The General Court’s Joint Committee on Election Laws is currently considering a number of other bills as well, besides automatic voter registration. Of these, possible options include same-day registration; expanding early voting; and “sticky” voter registration (automatically updating registration for voters who move throughout the state). Indeed, Justice Wilkins seemed to be in favor of same-day registration, pointing within the Chelsea Collaborative decision to the example of Milwaukee, “a municipality roughly the size of Boston, with a diverse urban population, [which] can handle 45,000 registrations on election day itself, followed by processing and entry into the computer system within 40 to 45 days after the election.” Regardless of which options the General Court ultimately decides to adopt, one thing is clear: it is only a matter of time before Massachusetts’ voting registration practices are finally brought forward into the twenty-first century.