Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he’s the steady hand that Massachusetts voters can rely on each election. His challenger, Tanisha Sullivan, said he’s actually stood in the way of making it easier for them to cast ballots.
The dueling versions of Galvin’s nearly 28-year record as the state’s chief election officer came into sharp focus Wednesday, when the Democratic rivals met for their second debate in three days ahead of the Sept. 6 primary.
Sullivan, a first-time candidate, corporate lawyer, and president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, repeatedly framed the sometimes glacial pace of voting reforms in Massachusetts as a failure of Galvin’s, not the Legislature’s, arguing the Brighton Democrat has slow-walked changes or even fought them in litigation.
“This is a leadership moment,” Sullivan said during the GBH News debate.
Galvin bristled at the suggestion, saying he’s pushed lawmakers to embrace reforms and championed changes, including expanding vote-by-mail options, that helped open the door to record-breaking turnout during the 2020 election.
“The question is who’s got the technical experience,” Galvin said of voters’ choice in the race.
Both Galvin, 71, and Sullivan, 48, have emphasized the importance of elections in their campaign pitches. They both promise to push for greater voter access at a time when voting rights are being curtailed across the country. They both say they also support implementing election-day registration, a change long sought but never enacted on Beacon Hill.
But how they’ve framed the voting experience — and Galvin’s role in it — has been vastly different in what is the only secretary of state primary in the country in which a Democratic incumbent is being challenged.
Sullivan on Wednesday argued that Galvin has sometimes played the role of obstacle, putting him on the defensive. The Hyde Park Democrat pointed to a 2016 lawsuit brought by the Chelsea Collaborative, a social services nonprofit, and MassVOTE, a nonprofit that tries to boost voter participation, which challenged a requirement that new voters must register 20 days before Election Day.
A Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled the law unconstitutional in 2017. But Galvin resisted the decision and appealed, arguing that scrapping the deadline could create “administrative chaos.” The Supreme Judicial Court ultimately ruled in his favor, writing that the 25-year-old law did “not pose a significant interference” for those seeking to vote.
The Legislature this year passed a law shortening the window to 10 days as part of a bill making universal voting-by-mail permanent. But the Democrat-led Massachusetts House has resisted establishing election-day registration and lawmakers dropped that language from the final version of the bill.
Sullivan said Galvin should have embraced, not fought, the 2017 lower-court decision.
“The fact that Bill Galvin challenged that decision is what has led us to now, [and] years and years of a battle with the Legislature,” Sullivan said.
Galvin said he defended the 20-day window then because his office “needed it to get the ballots printed.” But he said he has supported establishing election-day registration as a policy, something the SJC’s decision itself noted.
“I was trying then — that was four years ago — [and] I was trying before” to get it passed, he said.
The forum marked the candidates’ second tense meeting this week. The two traded criticisms over an hourlong radio debate on Monday, with Sullivan painting the seven-term incumbent as a reactive leader and Galvin repeatedly accusing his opponent of “misstatements” and showing “ignorance of the office and the laws around it.”
Galvin retreated from such direct criticisms Wednesday, saying “surely she’s an accomplished woman.” But he framed himself as the seasoned administrator needed to oversee a consequential presidential election two years from now.
“The most important issue is what’s going to happen in 2024. All the other things we care about are affected by the outcome of that election. We know that,” Galvin said. “And if we’re going to do something about it, we have to have someone there who understands in great detail the operations of elections. I do.”
Race, and the role it plays in the campaign and the Secretary of State’s office, also was part of the campaign debate Wednesday. Moderator Jim Braude pressed Galvin on the share of people of color working under him, pointing to a CommonWealth Magazine piece that found Galvin’s office had the lowest percentage of minority workers among constitutional offices.
Galvin said Wednesday that 16 percent of his staff identify as Black, Hispanic, or from other minority groups, but argued that increasing diversity can be difficult in agencies his office absorbed and where employees are “unionized and protected.”
Braude also asked Sullivan whether her gender and race should matter to voters. Sullivan would be both the first woman and person of color to lead the office if elected.
Sullivan, a corporate attorney, said her legal experience is relevant. But, she said, “I bring my lived experience to this role as a black woman — yes, a black woman who is actively engaged in our communities and has a deep understanding and a grounding in what the issues are [that are] preventing people from actually voting.”
Galvin said he has sought to pull up voter participation in urban communities and communities of color, and that lagging numbers there were not from a lack of effort. While 71 percent of white citizens of voting age in Massachusetts turned out to vote in November 2020, just 36 percent of Black citizens did, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It was the lowest percentage of a state’s Black voter population in the country, the foundation’s data show.
“No one during my career is more committed to getting minority communities involved,” said Galvin.
The winner of the Democratic primary will likely face Rayla Campbell, a Whitman Republican, in November. She, too, is running to be the first Black woman to hold the office.
Campbell opposes universal mail-in balloting, and backs implementing an ID requirement to vote. She has also sown doubts about the 2020 election, suggesting in April that the media “buried the truth.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described 2020 voting rates by race in Massachusetts. Seventy-one percent of white citizens of voting age in Massachusetts turned out to vote in November 2020, and 36 percent of Black citizens did.