Massachusetts lawmakers and the state’s top elections official are pressing to move next year’s state primary before Labor Day, stirring consternation within the political ranks, most notably from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who charged that the earlier date will be an obstacle to voters.
Kennedy, who is challenging Senator Edward J. Markey in next fall’s top-of-the-ticket Democratic primary, said the proposed Sept. 1 date — the Tuesday before the holiday — would disproportionately affect “young college students, parents struggling to access summer childcare, and voters across the Commonwealth who already face barriers to the ballot box.”
Shannon Liss-Riordan, another Markey challenger, voiced similar concerns, arguing the primary should be after Labor Day. Markey, too, prefers a post-holiday vote but indicated he’s already planning around the Sept. 1 date.
The pushback against holding the primary during a week when many schools may not have started yet and summer child-care programs may have wound down comes as the Massachusetts Senate is poised to take up the measure Thursday.
The House approved the earlier date last week as part of a supplementary spending bill amid arguments that the current Sept. 15 primary date could run up against federal requirements for when the state must send general election ballots to military personnel and voters living overseas.
“At a time when countless Americans feel excluded from our political system, Massachusetts should set a sterling example for voter participation, access, and transparency,” Kennedy said in a statement. “We should all be working to increase turnout and participation any way we can.”
The push for a Sept. 1 primary, he added on Twitter, “does the opposite.”
Beyond the Senate race, the fall 2020 primary also includes contests for each of the state’s congressional districts, including an open race for Kennedy’s Fourth District seat, as well as those for state representative and senator. The presidential primary will be held on March 3, 2020, for which the House also approved five days of early voting as part of the same bill.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s leading elections officer, who recommended the earlier date, staunchly defended the plan, saying Sept. 1 is the “most reasonable” alternative amid a tight timeline.
Massachusetts statute designates the primary to be held on the seventh Tuesday before the general election — in next year’s case, Sept. 15 — meaning that any change would require legislative action.
But federal law also requires the state make ballots available for military personnel and voters living overseas 45 days before the Nov. 3 election, or Sept. 19. The state must also certify the results of the primary by the same day, a timeline that Galvin said wouldn’t provide enough wiggle room if the primary was on Sept. 15 or Sept. 8 — the day after Labor Day, as some in the House and Senate proposed.
“We cannot turn the ballot around in 11 days,” Galvin said, adding that on Tuesday he notified the federal Federal Voting Assistance Program, which helps military personnel and overseas voters, about the proposed Sept. 1 date.
“My priority is voters,” he said. “And in this case, we have a group of voters — military voters and overseas persons — who have a right to have their vote protected. . . . It’s not about a political thing.”
Galvin also cautioned that moving the primary date later than Sept. 1 is likely to invite litigation, should the state miss deadlines for providing ballots to those overseas.
“The one thing I’m absolutely certain of: If there was an effort to move it later than the 1st now, we would be sued and we would lose,” he said. “The alternative [from Sept. 1] is depriving military personnel and citizens living overseas of the right to vote.”
He also pushed back against the idea that voters would be out of town on Sept. 1.
“We investigated both last year and this year, the start of school. That’s usually a better indicator of when people return from vacation,” Galvin said. “In many communities, they’re going to start in the last week of August because Labor Day is so late. That’s a factor.”
The state primary in 2018 was scheduled for the day after Labor Day, a decision shaped by the timing of two Jewish holidays but one that similarly drew grumbling that it could suppress turnout. More than 1 million people ultimately cast votes, the highest number in a state primary in more than a decade.
Kennedy isn’t alone in his concerns. Liss-Riordan, a Brookline labor attorney, said the pre-Labor Day vote is “one way to lessen turnout, which will benefit those lawmakers who select the date.”
“The primary should be after Labor Day, when people are used to going to the polls,” she said in a statement. “We should be doing everything we can to encourage more voices to be heard and votes to be counted.”
Markey, too, believes that the choice of a primary date should maximize the chance to vote, including for those overseas, according to his campaign. But the incumbent, who’s held the Senate seat since 2013, indicated he’s less concerned about the earlier date.
“When asked, our campaign expressed a preference for a date after Labor Day,” John Walsh, Markey’s senior campaign director, said in a statement. “We are organizing around the date chosen by the leaders on Beacon Hill.”
Senator Paul R. Feeney said the day after summer’s unofficial closing holiday isn’t ideal either. But he’s filed an amendment for Thursday’s debate to push the 2020 primary to Sept. 8, arguing it’s a “marked improvement” over the preceding Tuesday.
“For me it’s so important to make sure we’re doing everything we can to increase voter participation. I don’t see the week before Labor Day as being the best day to be doing that,” said Feeney.
The Foxborough Democrat has endorsed Kennedy in the Senate race, but he said that was not a motivating factor for pushing the primary, in which he’ll be running for reelection himself. “It was less about a particular candidate or a particular race and more about ensuring that the maximum amount of voters show up on that day,” Feeney said of his amendment.
Others also back a Sept. 8 primary. Putting the primary a week before that is a “slap in the face” to younger voters, said Hayley Fleming, president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, who noted the date is a popular move-in day for renters and those returning to college.
“That [Sept. 1] date would disenfranchise a lot more people,” she said.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.