Except for the tree pollen, we find ourselves in some of the most wonderful weather of the year. Spring is reaching its crescendo, and our thoughts are turning to summer. It’s graduation season, a time of new beginnings.
It’s a beautiful time for a primary.
Current Massachusetts law (Chapter 53, Section 28) sets the date for our state primary:
State primaries shall be held on the seventh Tuesday preceding biennial state elections and on the fourth Tuesday preceding special state elections, except that primaries before special elections for senator or representative in congress shall be held on the sixth Tuesday preceding said elections. If a religious holiday falls on or immediately before the second Tuesday in September in an even-numbered year, the state primary shall be held on a date set by the state secretary within 7 days of the second Tuesday in September.
The 2020 election was held on Tuesday, November 3. Count back seven weeks and the law dictated a state primary date on Tuesday, September 15. Was this a religious holiday? Checking my calendar of religious holidays, Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on Friday, September 18. Diversity Resources list of interfaith religious holidays indicates there were no religions holidays between September 11 and Rosh Hashanah.
It appears Rosh Hashanah had a bit more significance in changing last year’s primary date, but in a secular way. By coincidence, Rosh Hashanah was 45 days before the November 3 election, which coincides with a federal deadline:
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), as amended by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act, requires absentee ballots be sent to UOCAVA voters at least 45 days before a federal election.
If Massachusetts held its primary on Tuesday, September 15, they would have needed to certify results, print ballots, and place them in the mail no later than Saturday, September 19. In the best of times this is an impossible task, and when something goes wrong (such as last year’s 3,000 primary votes in Franklin that weren’t found and counted for ten days) the tight deadline can push us into electoral chaos.
We can applaud Secretary Galvin for creating a new religious holiday (Tuesday too close to the Federal ballot deadline) to exercise his authority under Chapter 53, Section 28 to move the 2020 primary. At that, he pushed the limit of the law requiring the primary to be held within 7 days of the second Tuesday in September, as our September 1 primary was a full week before the second Tuesday (September 8) and six days before Labor Day.
There is no doubt our law needs to be changed. We need an earlier primary. The questions before us are when the primary should be held, and when any proposal to move the primary will overcome the usual inertia in our Great and General Court.
Setting the date
Secretary Galvin pushed beyond the envelope to set a Tuesday primary that was a week before Labor Day. Though some school districts begin instruction before Labor Day, this is a prime vacation week for folks who can tack a week off onto a three-day weekend. It comes at the end of a summer season in which canvassers knock on the unanswered doors of voters who are out enjoying pleasant summer days.
In contrast, we are now at a time when we are filled with civic engagement. Here in Arlington, we are in the midst of our Annual Town Meeting. All Massachusetts towns hold elections and town meetings in the spring, resulting in civic minded folks gathering to conduct the business of the town. While folks in cities don’t have political events in the spring, the process of developing and approving a municipal budget is also a time of civic engagement.
Memorial Day begins the distractions of summer. A primary date on the Tuesday preceding Memorial Day would be the capstone of a spring season of civic engagement.
The May primary offers significant improvements to our democratic process. A May primary would encourage more candidates to run for office, as it places the weeks before the primary during a prime time for engaging with voters. It would encourage participation by college students, as the campaign would be held at a time when they are on campus. It would give candidates who emerge from a primary time to gather resources and prepare for a general election campaign after Labor Day.
Overcoming the inertia
Hopefully, the members of the Great and General Court would see the merit of a May primary and would support legislation to move out of its current legal soup. However, legislation is likely to sit in a subcommittee until the end of the legislative session, when it would be dispatched to the oblivion of a study order.
The state’s initiative process offers us a way to pluck a May primary off of its path to a study order and onto a November ballot. The window for the first step is on the horizon.
Initiative petitions first must be prepared by the petitioner, signed by at least 10 registered voters, and submitted to the Attorney General’s Office by the first Wednesday in August. Generally, initiative petitions are filed in odd-numbered years to appear on the ballot at the next statewide biennial election (held in even-numbered years).
We can make this happen! Who is with me?