Massachusetts high court provides cover for those who want to stop you from voting

Sometimes living in deep blue Massachusetts can feel comforting when observing the daily horror show that now passes for our federal government.

A case in point: as the U.S. Senate edges toward nominating President Donald Trump’s second arch-conservative Supreme Court pick, who could seriously endanger the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the Massachusetts House is working to pass a bill to protect abortion rights in this state.

But at other times, our supposedly progressive state can be frustratingly reactionary with regard to what should be basic rights, including voting rights.

Our own high court recently upheld Massachusetts’ onerous requirement that residents must register to vote 20 days in advance of elections in which they want to participate. This reversed a lower court ruling that 20-day registration deadline goes against the state’s Constitution.

This effectively bars incoming out-of-town students from participating in this year’s Sept. 4 primary. In the Valley, where the student population numbers in the tens of thousands, this is a significant issue.

The five colleges in Hampshire County all have move in dates between August 28 and 31, well after the August 15 deadline. Most of the colleges and universities in Hampden County also start in late August — after the deadline.

A student would have to be committed indeed to travel back to their home district to vote in some cases on the very day their classes begin.

The Sept. 4 primary election, set the day after Labor Day by six-term incumbent Secretary of State William Galvin, seems specifically chosen to ensure the lowest turnout possible. Galvin is rightly being challenged by Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim, who has built a campaign around aggressively expanding voting rights in the state.

The Sept. 4 date is devastating in Massachusetts, especially for us here in the western part of the state, as the winner of the Democratic primary will not usually face significant opposition in the November general election. Many of our political races will effectively be decided by this inconveniently placed primary.

Students moving to the area are effectively barred from voting by the 20-day registration deadline, but the deadline also affects many other voters. Historically, poor and minority voters are affected disproportionately by voting restrictions, and anyone can slip off of the voter rolls if they are not vigilant.

In my household, after missing the deadline to mail in our Northampton city census, we were informed by letter that if we failed to do so again, we could be taken off of the voting rolls. Staff at the clerk’s office assured me it would take four years of not voting before that happened, but it was still eye-opening to see that a simple case of missed paperwork could effectively lead to a surprise in the voting booth at some point, even if we had registered in the past.

All of this could be avoided if Massachusetts passed same-day voter registration, a practice allowed in all other New England states except for Rhode Island, and nationwide by 17 states total.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have upheld state efforts to purge voter rolls, thereby taking off eligible voters, and further Trump appointees are likely to exacerbate this.

Which brings me back to our own high court. The 20-day voter registration deadline was the second disappointing high-profile ruling in a three-week period. The first was taking away Massachusetts citizens’ ability to vote on what became known as the “millionaire tax” or Fair Share Amendment, which would have taxed income above $1 million at a higher rate and used the additional revenue to fund schools and transportation infrastructure.

The court struck down the proposed constitutional amendment — after the State Legislature had already approved it twice and was ready to place it on the 2018 ballot for the final stage of approval by voters — on a technicality, writing in a 5-2 decision that it might confuse voters due to its wording.

This ruling, like the 20-day deadline ruling, will likely reduce voter turnout, as it takes a popular measure off of the ballot.

Both of these decisions are out of line with Massachusetts voters. MassINC Polling Group found that 77 percent of them favored the “millionaire tax,” and enthusiasm is growing in the state for same-day registration or even automatic voter registration, which would enroll residents when they interact with the Registry of Motor Vehicles or MassHealth unless they opt out. Both houses of the Legislature recently passed a measure that would allow for automatic voter registration.

Much like at the federal level, justices on the Supreme Judicial Court — Massachusetts’ highest court — are appointed. For the federal Supreme Court, they are appointed by the president, for the Supreme Judicial Court, they are appointed by the governor, currently Republican Charles Baker.

In his three-and-a-half years in office, Baker has now appointed five out of the high court’s seven justices, and those majorities were the deciding factors in both the “millionaire tax” and the 20-day voter deadline decisions.

Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins, a Deval Patrick appointee, is the lower court judge who originally ruled against the 20-day deadline. Chief Justice Ralph Gants, one of two remaining Patrick appointees on the Supreme Judicial Court, opposed the “millionaire tax” decision and spoke critically of the court’s voting deadline decision, though he did go along with it.

In addition to having appointed a majority of the Supreme Judicial Court, Baker has now appointed a majority of the sitting judges in the state’s Appeals Court and Housing Court, and overall has appointed more than a quarter of all the judges in the state. While it’s difficult to understand the full ramifications of Baker’s effect on the state’s judiciary through his appointments, it is clear he is having an impact.

As we have seen with the theft of President Obama’s Supreme Court pick in 2016 by Senate Republicans, the people in elected office can have a drastic effect on our courts, which interpret the laws we live under.

That’s why it’s so disturbing when the court here in Massachusetts hinders our voting rights.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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