BOSTON — Good-government groups want lawmakers to act fast to allow people to register to vote on Election Day this fall, pointing to a recent court ruling that deemed unconstitutional the state's 20-day deadline to register before an election.
Several bills before the Legislature would allow same-day registration. The effort got a major boost last week when Secretary of State Bill Galvin also filed a bill to allow it. Galvin, the state's top election official, called on lawmakers to approve the proposal before a deadline Feb. 7 to move bills out of committee.
Ironically, Galvin's office is simultaneously embroiled in a legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts over the 20-day voter registration cutoff.
Last year, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled the deadline unconstitutional, saying it prevents thousands of potential voters from casting ballots.
Galvin is appealing but also asking lawmakers to approve his plan for same-day registration, starting next year. He stands behind the constitutionality of the cutoff but points out that he supported same-day voter registration even before the lawsuit.
"This is yet another way to make it easier to cast a ballot for any eligible citizen who wants to vote," he said of his proposal.
Voting access groups have praised Galvin's proposal.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, is urging lawmakers to approve it and has called on state election officials to "prepare for the possibility" that same-day registration could be allowed as early as November.
"Voting is the fundamental right upon which all our civil liberties rest," Rose said. "Yet thousands of qualified voters in Massachusetts have been disenfranchised by the commonwealth’s arbitrary 20-day voter registration cutoff."
Clerks say they are concerned about the additional costs and complications of allowing people to register and vote on the same day.
"I can't even imagine the logistics of doing it," said Methuen City Clerk Christine Touma-Conway. "It might work in a community that doesn't have a large population, where everyone votes in the same place. We have four polling places, so it would be expensive and add to the work."
The state has increasingly made it easy for people to register to vote — online, in the mail or in person — but she noted little is being done to boost turnout. She said the registration deadline gives clerks time to prepare for an election, from verifying voter rolls to printing ballots.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done to prepare for an election," she said. "Nobody wants to hear that we need that time to get ready."
Only 14 states, including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, and the District of Columbia allow same-day voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In several cases, laws have faced legal challenges from conservative groups that say the practice opens 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.
"If people want to vote, it's not that hard," he recently told 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.”
Good-government groups are also prodding Beacon Hill for automatic registration, which would renew someone’s voter eligibility whenever they renew a driver’s license or interact with a state agency.
Pending legislation would also allow voters to waive those updates.
"We've really put our efforts this year into automatic voter registration because we see that as a more achievable step," said Mary Ann Ashton, co-president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, which lobbied lawmakers to approve pending bills on automatic registration.
More than 4.5 million people are registered to vote in Massachusetts. The majority of them, about 54 percent, are not affiliated with a political party. About one-third are registered Democrats. Fewer than 11 percent are Republicans.
The state has taken steps in recent years to boost voter enrollment and turnout by allowing online registration and early voting, and by giving 16- and 17-year-olds the option to submit information in advance so they are immediately registered to vote on their 18th birthdays.
Recent studies suggest that allowing voters to register and vote on the same day improves turnout. A recent report by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project found that a key factor in states with the highest voter turnouts in the 2016 elections was allowing same-day registration.
On average, participation in states with same-day registration was 7 percent higher than in those without the option.
"We need to make sure everybody has the opportunity to vote — period," said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, one of the nonprofits suing the state over the registration deadline. "We're not trying to make it easier for people to vote, we're trying to make it more accessible."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.