Ropes & Gray and ACLU Obtain Historic Trial Victory In Constitutional Challenge to Massachusetts Voter Registration Cutoff

In The News
July 28, 2017

A Ropes & Gray litigation team working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts and the national ACLU's Voting Rights Project, prevailed in a challenge to the Massachusetts 20-day voter registration deadline. After a bench trial in Suffolk Superior Court, Judge Douglas H. Wilkins ruled on July 24 that the 20-day cutoff was unconstitutional under the Massachusetts constitution.

The case argued that the cutoff law has led to the arbitrary disenfranchisement of thousands of qualified voters each election, and was brought on behalf of plaintiffs Chelsea Collaborative, MassVOTE, and several individual voters. At trial, the plaintiffs contended that the successful administration of early voting in Massachusetts in 2016 was one of several factors that demonstrated that a 20-day registration cutoff is unnecessary. In addition, the plaintiffs presented evidence at trial concerning other states’ successful administration of Election Day Registration.

The Secretary of the Commonwealth defended the cutoff law on the grounds that a 20-day period is necessary to administer elections in an orderly manner and to prevent voter fraud, and argued that the registration deadline was a policy decision that should be left to the Legislature.

After trial, the Court concluded that while the “Legislature may pass laws that are necessary to ensure voters’ qualifications . . . or to ensure election security and order,” the evidence at trial “overwhelmingly shows no such necessity for the Massachusetts registration cutoff.” The Court’s opinion explained that the “Commonwealth has shown no real reason, grounded in data, facts or expert opinion, why election officials need to close registration almost 3 weeks before the election to do their job.”

The trial victory represents a significant achievement for voting rights advocates, who have faced widespread difficulty advancing similar arguments in federal courts. The Court’s July 24 ruling was based on its analysis of the Massachusetts state constitution. Secretary Galvin is appealing the decision.

The Ropes & Gray trial team working on a pro bono basis included associate Patrick Welsh.