Massachusetts Reckons with How Proactively Its Secretary of State Should Promote Voting

In Tuesday’s primary, a seven-term Democratic incumbent faces a local NAACP leader who faults him for insufficiently championing ballot access

Sam Mellins   |    August 31, 2022

Tanisha Sullivan is challenging longtime incumbent Bill Galvin in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts secretary of state next week. (Photo via Sullivan/Facebook and Galvin/Facebook).

If Bay Staters want to vote in their Sept. 6 primary but haven’t yet registered, it’s already too late. Massachusetts is a somewhat rare blue state that does not allow residents to register on Election Day, even as same-day voter registration has spread rapidly over the past decade, including in conservative states like Utah. Voting rights advocates, who stress that same-day registration could boost turnout, are frustrated that Massachusetts has not caught up, with a legislative proposal dying yet again this year. 

Massachusetts nearly adopted same-day registration in 2017 when a court struck down the requirement that potential voters register at least 20 days in advance of an election. But Democratic Secretary of State Bill Galvin fought the lawsuit filed by two nonpartisan groups and appealed the ruling. The state’s supreme court eventually overturned it and allowed the deadline to remain on the books. (State lawmakers have since lowered the cutoff to 10 days.)

Galvin’s challenger in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Tanisha Sullivan, faults the incumbent’s actions against that 2017 lawsuit for stalling a milestone reform. Sullivan, the president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, says it’s indicative of his lackluster approach to promoting ballot access. As secretary of state, she says she would bring to the office fresh energy and a more aggressive approach to promoting turnout and voting rights.

“We do need a more proactive secretary of state and that’s what I’m offering to the people of Massachusetts,” Sullivan told Bolts. “It’s really slowing down our progress here on voting rights.”

Galvin has held the post since 1995, and is seeking a record eighth term in office this year. He is running on his record of more than two decades of secure election administration.

“We have to have someone there who understands in great detail the operations of elections. I do,” Galvin said at a debate between the two candidates. Galvin’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview with the secretary of state. 

Galvin now says he supports same-day voter registration and wants to see the legislature adopt a bill to implement it. Since facing a progressive challenger who ran on a platform similar to Sullivan’s in 2018, he has shifted toward supporting new reforms. But Galvin’s critics have long said he does not sufficiently push for change. His office has faced several recent lawsuits seeking to force him to make changes.

“Amongst really engaged Democrats, I think there is some frustration with Galvin’s leadership style, and potentially his personality as well,” Tatishe Nteta, a professor of political science at UMass Amherst who studies voter behavior and political campaigns, told Bolts.

At the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s convention in June, Sullivan beat out Galvin for the party’s endorsement after telling convention delegates, “It is time for proactive leadership that understands that voting is not a privilege, it’s a right.”

But support from the party’s activist core often does not translate to support from the rest of the electorate and a primary win, Nteta added. Galvin is strongly favored to win the nomination over Sullivan, according to recent polling

The winner of this primary, which has not been a particularly high-profile or expensive affair, will move on to face Rayla Campbell, a radio host who is the only Republican running in the Sept. 6 primary. Campbell is part of a wave of election deniers running to take over election offices nationwide; she supported former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and has repeatedly echoed the former president’s lies that the election was stolen from him. 

Massachusetts hasn’t elected a Republican secretary of state for over seventy years, and Campbell’s strong support for Trump remains unlikely to appeal to voters in this liberal state. The Democratic nominee will enter the general election as the favorite.

Galvin, a career public servant, is a mainstay in Massachusetts Democratic politics. He’s been in public office since the 1970s, having served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for over a decade before being elected secretary of state.

In that time, Galvin frequently clashed with voting rights advocates.

In 2014, when the state legislature adopted a landmark bill that put in place a bevy of election reforms—including enabling early voting, creating an online voter registration system, and letting 16- and 17-year olds preregister to vote—The Boston Globe labeled Galvin one of the “losers” of the session due to his lobbying against the bill. 

“Several of the main times where there’s been a push to strengthen voting rights and modernize election systems, Galvin’s been an opponent,” said Jonathan Cohn, policy director at Progressive Massachusetts, a state-based advocacy group that champions a range of election reforms like same-day voter registration. 

Kristina Mensik, the co-chair of the Democracy Behind Bars coalition, which promotes the voting rights of incarcerated people around the country, told Bolts that in recent years Galvin “was helpful in drafting jail-based voting legislation.” (The state adopted a law this year to make it easier for eligible Bay Staters to vote from jail.) At the same time, Galvin’s office has fallen short in other areas, Mensik said. 

During the early stages of the pandemic, Mensik worked for Common Cause Massachusetts, a voting rights organization. She says Galvin’s office was too slow in issuing instructions to poll workers in the fall of 2020 on how to process the historically high number of mail-in ballots, and how to run safe polling sites in the early days of the pandemic. “I was often frustrated by the lack of responsiveness and basic resources that I thought election officials needed,” Mensik said.

Common Cause joined other organizations in 2020 in suing Galvin for announcing he would not send out applications  to request mail-in ballots to all voters by July 15, as required by the state’s emergency Covid-19 response law. Galvin claimed that his office didn’t have the funds to mail the applications, but the organizations that sued disputed this, claiming it had received over $8 million in CARES Act funding that should be used to mail ballot applications. The day after the suit was filed, Mensik says, Galvin’s office began mailing out applications.

Galvin did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but his office did reply to questions about their policies during the pandemic. A spokesperson said the governor did not provide the necessary funding to send out mail-in applications until mid-July; she also defended the speed of the support the office provided to local elections offices in the lead-up to the Sept. 2020 primary. “Our clerks were able to adapt quickly using our guidance,” she said.

Galvin had faced other lawsuits for his handling of elections in the past. He was sued in 2012 by the NAACP and other groups for not complying with provisions of federal law requiring state agencies to help public assistance recipients register to vote, and in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to report data on votes cast by Massachusetts voters who were in the military or foreign countries. In both of these suits, Galvin and the plaintiffs reached a settlement where his office agreed to take steps to remedy the cause of the lawsuit. 

In 2018, then-Boston councilmember Josh Zakim challenged Galvin in the Democratic primary, criticizing him for not supporting reforms that had taken off in other blue states. Zakim lost by a wide margin, winning only 33 percent of the vote to Galvin’s 67 percent. Galvin has since been more vocal in support of measures to make it easier to register and to vote.

Galvin rolled out a bill to implement same-day registration in 2018, the year after he fought it in court. Still, his critics say he hasn’t worked hard enough to expand ballot access, even when he officially supports reforms. For instance, Sullivan charges that Galvin hasn’t been aggressive enough in lobbying the legislature to pass same-day registration into law.

“It’s one thing to say that you support something. It’s another thing to put your weight behind making it happen,” Sullivan said. “It speaks to either him being ineffective in his role from a leadership standpoint, or him simply not believing that this is something that is a priority.”

Galvin has blamed the inaction on the Massachusetts House of Representatives. This year, the state Senate approved a measure establishing same day registration, but it died in the House amid opposition from Democratic conference leadership. “[If] you ask the Senate conferees, they’ll tell you where the problem was and they’ll tell you of my support,” Galvin said at a debate with Sullivan in August.

Sullivan says she’d work with the legislature, if elected, to try to get the recalcitrant House to follow the Senate’s lead in passing a same-day registration bill. But if that effort continued to come up short, Sullivan would support organizations that wanted to put the matter directly to voters through a ballot initiative. 

“I’m a corporate lawyer in my 20th year of legal practice, but I’m also a grassroots civil rights leader,” she said. “And so when I put on my grassroots civil rights leadership hat, I’m going to the people.”

Massachusetts allows voters to pass laws through ballot initiatives. Supporters must collect more than 80,000 signatures required to put a measure on the ballot, a tall order. Galvin’s campaign did not respond to a question on whether he would support such an initiative.

Sullivan, who would be the first woman and the first person of color to serve as secretary of state in Massachusetts, also says that she would expand the office’s role to a focus on community engagement, particularly in areas where voter participation is low. She says she would open up field offices throughout the state, and partner with local community organizations to run programming to help citizens get involved in local politics and electoral efforts. 

“Once people have more trust and faith in the system, then we can inspire, motivate and encourage them to turn out to vote,” Sullivan said.