BOSTON – Early voting earned positive reviews during its inaugural run in Massachusetts, but lawmakers have so far been hesitant about implementing the voter convenience for this year’s primary elections -- historically low-turnout affairs in which some incumbents face challengers.
“If we are going for good government, good democracy, why are we so hesitant to pass legislation that’s going to do just that?” Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVote, told the News Service on Tuesday. “A lot of our elections are won in the primaries.”
In interviews, those familiar with the reform say it expanded voting opportunities in the 2016 general election but needs to be adequately funded to ensure that cities and towns of all sizes are able to accommodate voters over what are effectively multiple election days.
About 30 percent of registered voters used the early voting option in the November 2016 general election, according to Common Cause Massachusetts, which concluded the reform reduced wait times and led to “many positive reports” from citizens and administrators.
Because it’s never been tried before in Massachusetts, the influence of early voting on primary elections -- both on turnout and outcome -- is unclear.
The Senate on April 26 voted 35-3 to adopt a measure calling for five days of early voting before the Sept. 4 primary elections, but the House did not go along with the idea during secret talks, and it was quietly dropped from a supplemental budget bill that has since been signed into law.
Sen. Barbara L’Italien of Andover, a candidate for Congress in a crowded Democratic field that would be affected by early voting, has been pushing for the reform but has come up empty. Senators last week shot down her bid to attach early voting for the primaries, with funding, to the annual state budget.
Now, L’Italien says, she’ll file a new bill, which she hopes will gain traction in the less than 100 days remaining before the primary elections.
“We’ll continue to go forward on every avenue that’s available to us,” she said. “The day after Labor Day is going to be a very low turnout day.”
Voters will have additional opportunities to participate if they are permitted to cast ballots from Monday, Aug. 27 through Friday, Aug. 31, L’Italien said, noting the contested gubernatorial primary between Jay Gonzalez and Robert Massie and a “lot of interest” in state legislative races.
The bill will likely be routed to the House-controlled Election Laws Committee, which has already reviewed early voting bills this session.
SHNS Video: DeLeo on automatic voter registration, early voting
Election Laws Committee Co-chairman Rep. John Mahoney, a Worcester Democrat, has not responded to repeated News Service inquiries about the matter, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Wednesday said he intends to have Mahoney in to meet with him on election law issues. While the speaker expressed a greater interest in looking at automatic voter registration this session, DeLeo said he would also be talking about early primary voting with Mahoney.
Common Cause Massachusetts, which has been pushing for automatic voter registration, released a study on Wednesday examining the automatic registration systems in Oregon, Vermont and Colorado and concluded that implementation costs in Massachusetts would be “minimal” and covered by funds already available in the state’s Help America Vote Act account.
Marie Ryan, president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association and the town clerk in Great Barrington, said the logistics of early voting can be “very tricky,” but municipal clerks “love that it helps the voters and makes it convenient for them.”
She noted the legwork and expenses involved in making sure voting places are available and properly staffed over an extended period. And while people enjoyed the convenience of voting at different times in 2016, Ryan said that early voting “did not increase voter participation” overall.
“We’re just trying to work with the Legislature to get it to work for everybody,” Ryan said. “We certainly don’t mind early voting.”
Lawmakers have flexibility in setting the parameters of early voting. Authorized under a 2014 law, the 10-day 2016 early voting period stretched from Monday, Oct. 24 until Friday, Nov. 4. Current proposals call for a shorter five-day pre-primary early voting period.
Mary Ann Ashton of Acton, president of the League of Women Voters, said the need for early voting is more urgent because voters may be distracted since the primaries are being held this year the day after Labor Day, in part to prevent the primaries from coinciding with Jewish holidays.
“We are very much in favor of it,” Ashton said. “It gives voters more choices.”
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said funding and administrative issues were worked out during and after the first early voting period. “It was terrific,” said Wilmot, who is hoping lawmakers will pass a bill to enable early voting for the primaries.
Crawford, of MassVOTE, said early voting has the potential to raise awareness of civic engagement and create more “supervoters.”
“It’s a habit and we have to create the habit and I don’t think we should skip the primaries,” Crawford said.
Setting a date for the state primary this year became more of an issue than normal because the target date for the primary is Tuesday, Sept. 18, but that date marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. One week earlier, Tuesday, Sept. 11, conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Because of the conflict, this year Secretary of State William Galvin was required by law to schedule the primary within seven days of the second Tuesday of September, or Sept. 11, leaving the secretary a window from Sept. 4 until Sept. 18 to hold the election.
Galvin’s decision to hold the primaries on Sept. 4 and his request that the Legislature approves five days of early voting before the primaries did not sit well with his challenger, Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim.
“It is outrageous and unprecedented to schedule a statewide primary for the day after Labor Day, when people are just returning from their summer vacations and haven’t had time to focus on the upcoming election. And scheduling an early voting period during the last week of August is equally ridiculous,” Zakim said in a statement in January, claiming the primary has never been held the day after Labor Day in the 124 years it’s been a federal holiday. “This is a brazen example of the Secretary trying to depress voter turnout.”
Galvin’s office said his determination came after consultation with DeLeo and Senate President Harriette Chandler, and that it includes a request that the Legislature pay for cities and towns to host early voting. The secretary of state has in the past been resistant to scheduling elections the day after the holiday due to the overtime costs associated with hiring poll workers to set up stations over the weekend.
“Given the interest we are already seeing in the primaries and the successful implementation of early voting in the 2016 State Election, I believe offering early voting for the State Primaries would provide a greater opportunity for voter participation,” Galvin said in a statement in January.