He’s a dean among Democratic secretaries of state and almost synonymous with his office, overseeing elections longer than any of his party counterparts nationwide. In 2020, as the electoral map burned with unsupported fraud claims and audits, William F. Galvin oversaw a record-breaking vote that was viewed as a success, if not a model, for counting votes nationwide.
But Galvin also holds another distinction as he seeks a historic eighth term as Massachusetts’ chief elections official: He is the only incumbent Democratic secretary of state being targeted within his own party.
As the secretary of state role rockets to newfound political prominence, Galvin’s challenge from attorney Tanisha Sullivan stands alone in an already abnormal slate of contests across the country. Here, the race has become rooted in a larger, if familiar, question for the longtime incumbent: What more, if anything, do voters want from an office that’s had the same leader for nearly three decades?
“We have to turn this place upside down,” said state Representative Russell E. Holmes, the House’s longest-serving current Black member and a Sullivan supporter. “I don’t look at  as, ‘We were status quo and everything else was crazy.’ We need to be a beacon of light.”
A first-time candidate and the head of Boston’s NAACP branch, Sullivan is banking on a wider appetite for change, promising to expand the focus of what she calls a “stale” office into a more proactive hub for voters and businesses. While overseeing elections, the office also enforces the state’s public records law, polices the financial industry, and is a clearinghouse for corporations registering with the state.
“It is no longer enough for the secretary of state’s office to be solely focused on the transactional nature of the work, the administrative side of the work. That’s stagnant,” said Sullivan, 47, an attorney for the drug giant Sanofi Genzyme.
Galvin, 71, dismisses Sullivan’s pitch as “rhetorical” and one that glosses over the importance of nuts-and-bolts election administration that he’s laid claim to mastering. The Brighton Democrat, who first won election to the office in 1994, is also four years removed from easily fending off another progressive challenger in former Boston city councilor Josh Zakim, who similarly ran on a promise of bringing more visionary leadership.
Galvin won the primary by 35 points, and the general election by an even wider margin.
“All the other things you care about, whether it’s economic justice, social justice, whatever — it depends on a fair administration, an honest administration, and an effective administration of elections,” Galvin said. “I’ve made it a hallmark of my campaign.”
Few challenge that the race is transpiring in a radically different environment than four years ago. Secretary of state contests, once considered down-ballot afterthoughts, have become a pitched battleground in the aftermath of the 2020 election and former president Donald Trump’s bogus election fraud claims, helping elevate the vital job of administering the vote and enforcing election rules.
GOP candidates who’ve questioned or denied the 2020 results are now vying to oversee their state’s elections — a list that, according to one nonpartisan group that tracks races nationwide, also includes Massachusetts’ Rayla Campbell, a Whitman Republican who launched her campaign last September. Shortly after the 2020 election, she wrote on Twitter that GOP senators “need to grow a backbone and stand with the President” on his voter fraud claims.
Campbell, who opposes universal mail-in balloting and backs implementing an ID requirement to vote, rejects that she’s an “election denier,” as the group States United Action tagged her.
“I moved on, it’s now 2022,” she said. But she also criticized the media, saying “they buried the truth.”
“Just recount [the ballots],” she said. “If there are no discrepancies, there shouldn’t be anything to hide.”
From the outside, Massachusetts may appear insulated from such national narratives. Voters here cast ballots in record-breaking numbers in 2020 with no evidence of fraud. State lawmakers are actively weighing ways to expand voting rights, not restrict them as other states have raced to do. Galvin has championed changes the Legislature is considering, including Election Day registration and permanent no-excuse mail-in voting.
Still, national influences percolating through races in other states seem likely to permeate the primary here, too.
Melvin Poindexter, a Massachusetts Democratic National Committee member, said that when he met with Democrats from Boston’s Ward 22 — where Galvin lives — many pointed to Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger. The Republican certified President Biden’s victory in the state despite intense partisan pressure, including from Trump, who told him to “find” enough votes to erase Biden’s margin of victory.
“The steady hand became what people looked at,” Poindexter said, sharing others’ thinking. “I heard a lot of people say there, ‘If someone is already doing that work, then why change?’ ”
The power of incumbency, particularly for Galvin, has proven real. After seven terms, he’s become part of the office’s fabric — his face centered at the top of the secretary of state’s website, his name sprayed on booklets and signs.
After the 2018 election, ethics regulators found that he violated ethics laws, saying Galvin’s office “prominently” put his name on voting signs and in voter information booklets distributed by his taxpayer-funded office to the point it afforded him “free positive publicity.” (Galvin has said that he did not knowingly violate any conflict of interest laws.)
During the same election, Galvin also disciplined three workers in his office after a series of Globe stories raised questions about state staffers performing campaign work on his behalf during weekdays or normal business hours. Galvin said then that he did not ask any employees to help his campaign.
“It’s a heavy hill to climb,” Zakim said of unseating a longtime incumbent like Galvin. “I thought we could be more of a leader. But people feel confident in our elections here. There wasn’t any issue in certifying the results [in 2020]. People weren’t pounding on the doors the way they were in Arizona or Michigan or many of the other states.”
Even in Cambridge — one of just three communities Galvin lost during his 2018 primary — party activists appear to have mixed opinions, said Elizabeth Baldwin, who chairs the city’s Democratic committee.
“There’s still a lot of appreciation for the things that Galvin has done, and the idea that things can move farther,” she said. “Then some people are excited about someone new, maybe bringing a different perspective and a different identity — a racial, gender identity.”
Indeed, the race carries the prospect of history. Galvin would set the standard for longevity in a 242-year-old office, where no one has served longer than 28 years.
Sullivan, a Hyde Park resident, would be the first woman and person of color to hold the post, and supporters say the potential change in representation echoes the promise Representative Ayanna Pressley brought when she upset Michael Capuano in 2018. Sullivan, for example, said she would expand the office’s presence, if not its physical footprint, beyond the offices it currently has in Boston, Springfield, and Fall River, arguing the office needs better outreach to places, including communities of color, where turnout has lagged.
“Black people have been free in this state for 250 years, and we have had scarcely any Black people holding statewide office. It’s a very big deal,” said Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor who was the first Black woman to run for governor on a major party ticket in Massachusetts before she ended her campaign in February.
Days later, she endorsed Sullivan, and has argued that Galvin’s 28-year tenure is far longer than what “makes sense in a democracy.”
“You need turn-taking,” she said.