BOSTON — Requiring people to register to vote 20 days before an election doesn't violate their constitutional rights, the state's top court ruled Monday, dealing a blow to good government groups that have argued the cutoff disenfranchises voters.
The ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court overturns a decision by a lower court judge that the cutoff violates the state Constitution.
"This decision is a blow not just to Massachusetts voters but to the democratic process," said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which challenged the law on behalf of the groups Chelsea Collaborative, MassVOTE and several voters.
"Every election, Massachusetts’ arbitrary voter cutoff law disenfranchises thousands of potential voters throughout the Commonwealth – a fact that the Supreme Judicial Court itself acknowledges in its ruling," Rose said.
Last year, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled the deadline unconstitutional, saying it prevents thousands of potential voters from casting ballots.
Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees the state’s elections, appealed the ruling, arguing the 20-day rule does not impose a burden on voting rights.
In siding with Galvin, the Supreme Judicial Court pointed out that the state has increasingly made it easier for people to register to vote by mail, online or in person.
"The record contains ample evidence that the commonwealth has taken great steps to ensure that the process is simple and accessible," the court noted.
The ruling comes as lawmakers weigh a proposal to allow automatic voter registration, which ironically was filed by Galvin.
That proposal, which has been approved by the House, would renew someone’s voter eligibility whenever they get or renew a driver’s license or state ID.
Only 17 states — including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia — allow same-day registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In several cases conservative groups have contested the arrangements, saying they open the door to voter fraud.
In Massachusetts, a similar proposal was floated four years ago but failed to make it into a final bill updating election laws.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Swampscott Republican, has said he's reluctant to support same-day registration.
The issue has become political fodder in the heated Democratic primary race between Galvin and Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim, who is running for Galvin’s seat and has criticized him for fighting to uphold the 20-day voter registration deadline.
In a statement in response to Monday's ruling, Zakim accused Galvin of a "failure of leadership" for challenging the lower court's ruling.
"That’s a year lost to working proactively to implement a same-day voter registration system for Massachusetts," he said. "We now have, at least, another election cycle in which eligible Massachusetts residents have an additional, unnecessary obstacle to voting."
Galvin said Monday he welcomed the "valuable guidance" from the high court and reiterated his support for automatic voter registration.
Galvin, who has also advocated for same-day registration, has argued that the problem with proposals to do away with the 20-day cutoff has been a lack of funding for local clerks to handle the additional workload of signing voters right up until Election Day.
More than 4.5 million people are registered to vote in Massachusetts. The majority, about 54 percent, are not affiliated with a political party.
About one-third are registered Democrats. Fewer than 11 percent are Republicans.
The court pointed out that the Legislature has the authority to change the law but instead has chosen to uphold it over the years, which suggests that an "impartial lawmaker" would believe it "still serves legitimate public purposes that transcend the harm to those who may not vote."
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said she was "disappointed" by the decision but said passing automatic voter registration would blunt its impact by increasing voter participation and expanding access to the ballot.
"It would ensure that the vast majority of people are registered to vote in a timely manner, but it won't completely fix the problem," she said. "We need to be doing all we can to protect and expand democracy, so ultimately we hope that same day voter registration will become law."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Eagle-Tribune and North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.