BOSTON – Massachusetts politics are all aflutter because Congressman Joe Kennedy III is primarying Sen. Ed Markey. And voters will decide that race, and all the other state primaries … when?
No one knows for sure.
While voters in other states already know when their primary elections will be held, Beacon Hill is slowly coming around to face another round of one of its biennial games. Just call it Let’s Set the Primary Date.
Under current state law, the primary date next year falls on Sept. 15 but lawmakers have become accustomed to altering that date every two years to ensure that general election ballots make it to overseas voters on time and in compliance with a federal law, and to avoid conflicts with Jewish holidays.
This year, those holidays fall after Sept. 15 and are not a factor in the date-setting machinations. But the law requiring absentee ballots in federal elections to be available to overseas voters 45 days before the general election is coming into play again.
A Sept. 15 primary would leave the state with little time to ready final ballots. “You cannot turn around a ballot in three days,” Secretary of State William Galvin, the top state elections official, said after the News Service inquired about when the 2020 state primaries will actually be held.
Recounts, which are impossible to forecast and time-consuming to complete, could easily push the state out of compliance with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. The U.S. Department of Justice for several elections cycles has stopped granting waivers to states from that law, Galvin said, and he’s been in touch with federal officials to inform them of his efforts to move up the primary date.
Last year’s recount in the 3rd Congressional District, a race won by Rep. Lori Trahan, took more than a week to complete, Galvin noted. Next year, contested U.S. Senate and Congressional primaries are shaping up and a Governor’s Council seat is opening up, all in large districts that would take time to recount.
While some states have permanently moved up their primaries to prevent any conflict with the federal law, the Massachusetts Legislature, working with Galvin, has opted to set the primary date by passing special laws for roughly the last decade. That process is about to unfold again.
“I would like to resolve this as soon as possible,” Galvin said.
The secretary declined to disclose his date preference, citing ongoing talks with lawmakers, but acknowledged he is hoping for a date in September.
“Earlier is better than later,” he said. “I prefer September because August is a bad month to hold primaries anywhere.” Closed public buildings and vacations represent hurdles to holding August elections, he said.
House Election Laws Committee Chairman Rep. John Lawn said he’s only had preliminary talks with Galvin about the issue and does not have any strong primary date preferences.
On Wednesday, the committee Lawn co-chairs with Sen. Barry Finegold will hold a public hearing on more than three dozen election administration bills, including a few that would overhaul the state primaries. Finegold, of Andover, also represents Dracut, Tewksbury and Lawrence.
Sen. Becca Rausch is sponsoring a bill (H 419) calling for the state primaries to be moved up to the second Tuesday in June. An at-request bill (S 412) filed by Sen. Jason Lewis sets the primaries for the third Tuesday in May, predicting turnout increases and citing pre-summer primaries as “the practices of many states.”
Rep. James Murphy of Weymouth, the former co-chairman of the Election Laws Committee, has a bill (H 697) up for testimony Wednesday that assigns election reform issues to a commission. That panel would be given six months to return recommendations to increase voter participation in primaries, by looking at party convention rules governing candidate nominations, primary election dates and elimination of the party primary election system.
In 2018, Galvin was tasked with settling the primary date, to avoid Jewish holidays, and he chose the day after Labor Day.
The first Tuesday in September 2020 is Sept. 1, which is before Labor Day weekend, a time when many voters are still in vacation mode. The Tuesday after Labor Day is Sept. 8. There have been Thursday primaries, though Galvin said some lawmakers don’t like that idea.
With the U.S. presidency topping all ballots next year, Galvin noted interest in voting will be particularly high, with “tens of thousands” of overseas ballot likely needed. That underscores the need to leave enough time after the primary date to finalize general election ballots and get them out to eligible voters.
“The paramount thing here is the voters,” Galvin said. “Elections are about voters. They have the right to get a ballot and get it back to us.”