Foxboro Town Clerk Robert Cutler grimaces when asked about same-day voter registration.
“We’d definitely need an updated computer system,” Cutler says, “and the state hasn’t gotten that ready yet.”
Same-day voter registration — citizens not yet signed up to vote being able to walk in to a polling place on Election Day and cast a ballot — is a possibility in Attleboro area communities as a result of a lawsuit by the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU claims that the 20-day deadline to register before the election is unconstitutional and unnecessary in these days of vastly improved technology.
A trial was held earlier this month, and a decision is expected soon from Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins.
Local election officials are keeping a close eye on the suit.
They say they want to encourage more people to go to the polls while avoiding voter fraud.
“Nobody wants that,” Cutler says.
“We need time to get our voter list ready,” says Mansfield Town Clerk Marianne Staples, about the documentation which is checked on Election Day to make sure a citizen is registered. “Obviously, that takes time. However, I understand the frustrations of people when they come to the polls and can’t vote ...
“As a town clerk, I want people to vote.”
The lawsuit originated just before last November’s election when three citizens were denied the right to vote because they failed to register before the 20-day cutoff.
A Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled on the day before the election that the three could vote while putting off the larger question of whether the deadline is arbitrary and unconstitutional, as the ACLU claims.
Since 1993, Massachusetts has required new voters to register with their local election office, the Registry of Motor Vehicles or online through the Secretary of State’s office at least 20 days before the nearest election.
The 20 days was imposed so local election officials could draw up a list of voters that would be checked off on Election Day.
The lawsuit charges a 20-day cutoff period is arbitrary and unnecessary with improved technology, and that in every election, thousands of eligible citizens “cannot vote because they did not register before the statutory cutoff.”
The registration period serves no purpose other than to deny constitutionally eligible citizens the right to vote, the lawsuit charges.
“John Adams wrote our constitution here in Massachusetts, and said: ‘You have a right to vote,’” Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU, told Boston Public Radio recently. “He didn’t say: ‘If you register 20 days in advance.’”
The state proved there was no longer a need for a 20-day cutoff at last fall’s election, the ACLU claims, because it introduced early voting, which allowed ballots to be cast up to 15 days before the election. As a result, the registration deadline was essentially 5 days, not 20, the ACLU says.
The ACLU argues that same-day registration would be the best solution, but that the state should provide the least restrictive means of registering to vote.
Fourteen states and DC
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia offer same-day voter registration, including three in New England: Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. In many of those states, proof of residency is required at the polls before a voter can receive a ballot.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, the state’s chief election official, says he supports same-day registration but a change in state law would first be needed. Polling places would have to be able to cross-check a central voter registry when signing up new voters, something that’s not possible now under state law and would require updated software that town clerks like Foxboro’s Cutler seek.
Other state leaders aren’t convinced. Gov. Charlie Baker says same-day registration was a “really hard sell” for him.
“If people want to vote, it’s not that hard,” he said recently on Boston Public Radio.
“You go down to the Town Hall, you can do it when you get your driver’s license. There’s a million different ways. We’ve made it pretty easy for people in Massachusetts to vote.”
Staples, the Mansfield town clerk, says she believes that many people are unaware of online registration or that their registration does not follow them if they move. When big elections, like last fall’s, grab people’s attention, they want to exercise their right to vote and are upset if they can’t.
“But you can’t have a situation where you vote in Mansfield in the morning and then go to Easton and vote again,” she says.
Staples believes the state is on track to improve early voting and to relieve some registration restrictions that could reduce or even eliminate the cutoff period. A 22-page state survey to all local election chiefs that took her two hours to complete should provide information on the resources communities need to allow as many citizens as possible to vote.
“We want people to vote but we don’t voter fraud either,” she says, “so I can see both sides.”