BOSTON — A Massachusetts requirement that eligible voters register at least 20 days ahead of an election violates the state constitution and potentially disenfranchises thousands of voters, a judge ruled Monday.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins ruled that while state lawmakers may pass laws deemed necessary to ensure the qualifications of voters, the evidence “overwhelmingly shows no such necessity for the Massachusetts registration cutoff.”
Wilkins pointed to the state’s adoption of early voting last year to argue against the 20-day cutoff. That change allowed voters to begin casting ballots on Oct. 24, just five days after the Oct. 19 registration cutoff.
Democratic state Secretary William Galvin, who oversees the state’s elections, said the decision will spark administrative chaos.
“We are obviously appealing,” Galvin said. “We believe it is a very ill-considered opinion.”
Galvin said Wilkins seems to argue that any voter registration limit should be considered as a qualification to vote and would require a change in the state constitution.
In his ruling, Wilkins notes that “the 20-day deadline appears nowhere in the Massachusetts Constitution.”
Wilkins also notes that there have been significant technological advances since the 20-day cutoff was put in place more than two decades ago.
“By election day, the commonwealth’s voter registration data base already includes the names of thousands of late-registered voters. As a practical and technological matter, those people could vote in the ordinary course,” Wilkins wrote. “But the 20-day deadline compels officials to use a program that actually excludes their names from the final voter printout.”
“These and other developments call into question any rationale for denying any qualified citizen the right to vote on account of the 20-day deadline,” he added.
Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg said the Senate is ready to update the system.
“Based on the court decision it is time to modernize our voter registration system,” Rosenberg said in a statement. “Our best options are automatic voter registration and same day registration.”
The Senate passed same-day registration in 2014 and has pushed for an automatic voter registration system.
Wilkins doesn’t order lawmakers to take “a specific order a specific voter registration deadline, require early voting, mandate changes to the Commonwealth’s computer program or specify any other final resolution.”
Other states, including some in New England, have same-day registration. Nationwide, more than a dozen states allow voters to register and cast ballots on the same day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose called the decision “a major victory for democracy in Massachusetts.”
“As the Trump administration is seeking to limit access to the ballot, Massachusetts should lead nationwide efforts to ensure that everyone has a right to vote,” Rose said.
State lawmakers are weighing several other bills that would make changes to the state’s voter registration laws.
One would let Massachusetts residents have their voter registration information automatically updated whenever they renew their driver’s licenses or interact with state agencies, including the departments of housing and community development, revenue, and higher education — and all public colleges and universities.
The early voting option proved popular. More than 1 million Massachusetts voters cast ballots before Election Day last year.