Massachusetts election year dawning with primary date in flux
Over the past decade, Massachusetts has developed a pre-election tradition: moving up the state primary date.
State law calls for primary elections to be held seven weeks before the November general unless that date conflicts with a religious holiday. Under such a timeline, next year's primary would land on Sept. 20.
But, once again, the state's elections overseer wants an earlier primary -- a move that would require legislative action -- and is warning that the date called for under statute cuts it too close for a federal law that requires ballots be ready for military and overseas voters 45 days before Election Day, in this case, by Sept. 24, 2022.
The primary has had to be moved every year since that federal law took effect in 2010, according to Secretary of State William Galvin's office.
"In the past, we've always supported having a primary as early in September as possible," Galvin spokesperson Deb O'Malley said. "Given the likelihood of widespread vote by mail and recounts that could delay the printing of ballots, that is even more important this year."
Moving the primary to accommodate military and overseas ballots -- and sometimes to avoid overlap with Jewish holidays -- has become a biennial exercise on Beacon Hill, though timing and approach to writing an earlier date into law has varied. The clock is ticking for lawmakers to act for 2022, as Galvin's office will need to make nomination papers available to candidates in February.
Last cycle, language in a spending bill signed on Dec. 13, 2019 set the state primary for Sept. 1, 2020. State law tasks the secretary with picking a date when a conflict arises with Jewish holidays, as was the case in 2018, when Galvin that January selected Tuesday, Sept. 4.
Massachusetts in 2016 held a rare Thursday primary, with the Sept. 8 date ultimately settled in a compromise budget bill that was signed on Nov. 2, 2015. The House backed the Thursday date in its version of the bill, while the Senate initially voted to hold the election on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
Had lawmakers not intervened, the original date for the 2016 primary would have fallen on Sept. 20, the same timing that has Galvin asking lawmakers for a fix this year.
Legislation to change the primary date for 2022 has not yet surfaced in either branch. Minority leaders Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Brad Jones both tapped the issue earlier this month as one where they wanted to see action.
Referencing this month's lapse of pandemic-era mail-in voting options and concerns that next year's primary schedule would leave Massachusetts unable to comply with federal law, Galvin's office in November sent draft legislation to Senate President Karen Spilka's legal counsel.
The memo from Galvin's legislative director John Rosenberry and Elections Division director Michelle Tassinari suggested extending the early voting by-mail provisions that expired on Dec. 15 through June 30, 2022 to ensure "local officials can continue to operate under existing procedures through upcoming municipal elections" as well as granting Galvin the authority to set next year's primary date "within 14 days of the second Tuesday in September."
Galvin's proposal would require him to solicit public comment, including through at least two hearings, and choose a date by Jan. 15.
"The primary date must be set before nomination papers can be prepared and released in early February of the election year," the memo said.
O'Malley said the memo "was sent after discussions with legislative staff about whether the Legislature would rather set the date themselves, with our preferred date being the first Tuesday in September, as it has been for the last few State Primaries." The first Tuesday in September 2022 is Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day.
Galvin "is speaking with members of the Legislature and working with them to find the most expedient way to finalize a date as soon as possible," O'Malley said.
Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of the advocacy organization MassVOTE, said moving up the state primary "certainly makes sense to us" and also called for passage of Senate-backed voting reform legislation.
"Those voting by mail would likely be able to mail their ballots by primary day and still have them counted. Voters would also have more time to get to know the candidates and issues on the ballot for the general election," she said in a statement to the News Service. "However, moving up the primary date is but one small step the state could take to bolster voting rights. To truly make voting more accessible and inclusive for all, the state must immediately pass the VOTES Act, which would implement crucial policies like same day voter registration: policies proven to boost voter turnout for all, but especially Black, Latino, and young voters."
The Senate in October approved a bill that would permanently adopt COVID-inspired measures like expanded early and mail-in voting and also allow eligible voters to register the same day they cast their ballots. Before passing the bill on a party-line 36-3 vote, senators rejected a Sen. Becca Rausch amendment that would have bumped the biennial September state primaries to June.
A Sept. 20, 2022 date would give Massachusetts the latest primary of any state holding general legislative elections on Nov. 8, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures list.
New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Delaware are slated to hold theirs a week earlier, on Sept. 13. More than a dozen states have primaries scheduled in each June and August, with none in July.
Bills have been filed that would permanently move the Massachusetts primary up in the year, but the idea hasn't gained much traction. Earlier primaries could give challengers more time to make their case against incumbents, while requiring incumbents who are seeking reelection to blend campaigning in with the flurry of legislative activity that occurs during June and July of election years.
Three bills pending before the Election Laws Committee would have Massachusetts join the ranks of states with springtime primaries. The committee held an Oct. 20 hearing on the bills, which propose dates ranging from the second Tuesday in May (S 466 from Sutton Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman) to the second Tuesday in June (Rausch's S 487).
In the middle is a bill (S 479) filed by Sen. Jason Lewis at the request of a constituent, Winchester resident Vincent Dixon, suggesting the third Tuesday in May.
Rausch told the committee that the current election schedule "has plagued our commonwealth with primary dates that are widely inaccessible to our commonwealth's voters."
"Regardless of what the majority of the nation does -- although that is certainly something to consider -- we know that our September primary date simply does not work," the Needham Democrat said. "Session after session, election cycle after cycle, we have had to pass special laws to move the primary date for a variety of reasons such as accommodating the Jewish holidays and compliance with federal election law. Rather than continuing to pass special laws and creating uncertainty around when our primaries will be held, let's fix this problem once and for all."