The Massachusetts House voted Wednesday to move next year’s September primary to the day after Labor Day, continuing a biennial — and politically sensitive — practice of shifting the state’s election calendar.
Under language lawmakers attached to a $2.7 billion spending bill, the 2024 state primary would be bumped back by two weeks to Sept. 3. The state Senate and Governor Maura Healey still need to approve the change before it becomes law.
Massachusetts statute designates the primary to be held on the seventh Tuesday before the general election, or in next year’s case, Sept. 17. That currently stands as the latest state primary date in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Shifting the date has become common practice over the last decade-plus, with the primary falling directly after the holiday last year and in 2018, and to some challengers’ chagrin, even before Labor Day in 2020. The primary was moved to a Thursday in 2016 and 2012.
It, at times, has prompted howls of protests from politicians. In 2019, then-Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, who was challenging US Senator Edward Markey in the upcoming 2020 Democratic primary, called the decision to shift the vote to Sept. 1 the “opposite” of what the state should be doing to encourage voter participation. Two years earlier, Galvin’s own primary opponent, Josh Zakim, called the move the vote to directly after Labor Day “outrageous,” arguing that people would just be returning from vacation and weren’t focused on the vote. (Both lost their primary contests.)
The reason for the movement is logistics, said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who asked lawmakers to approve the most recent change.
Federal law requires that the state make ballots available for military personnel and voters living overseas 45 days before the November election, which in the case of 2024, means by Sept. 21.
The state’s perennially late primary brushes up against that deadline, effectively giving officials four days to turn around ballots if the date isn’t moved.
That, Galvin said, is “not practical or feasible.”
“Would I prefer it to be a different day? I would,” the eight-term Democrat said. “Unfortunately, there are no real options.”
In the past, the primary date — or other options for it — have also coincided with the beginning of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur or another Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah, prompting officials to consider other dates. (In 2024, both holidays fall in October.)
It’s also fed into a long-running, and so far fruitless, debate about moving the primary permanently. Legislation filed by Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, would shift the state primary to the second Tuesday in June, a move Galvin said he, too, is open to making.
But such a change would impact the entire political calendar, Galvin argued. “I can definitively say it’s too late to do it for 2024,” he said.
In Massachusetts, where Democrats dominate statewide, Congressional, and legislative offices, the primary can be the deciding vote in many races. More casual voters “on the margin” may not necessarily be influenced by the date moving it around, said Charles Stewart III, a MIT political science professor who studies elections. But, he said, “for administrative reasons, it would be good to have a fixed date.”
“You have it in June [or] you have it in September — it’s going to be the campaigns that are going to get people to the polls,” Stewart said.