The Massachusetts Senate last week joined the House in approving a pre-Labor Day state primary in 2020. But the chamber also launched something else: a review of whether the election should be held in September at all.
Amid criticism that next year’s proposed Sept. 1 primary date could hamstring voter turnout, the Senate formed a working group to examine moving the biennial vote to earlier in the year to avoid the time crunch the statutorily set election has often created.
To when to shift it — or when the group will make a recommendation — is unclear. But there are ideas. Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, who’s pushed for months to rethink the state primary date, said she believes the best option is the second Tuesday in June, plunking Massachusetts into one of the busiest months for such elections around the country.
Other states have also opted for August, including Vermont and Connecticut, though some question scheduling a vote with a month often reserved for summer getaways.
An earlier vote of some kind, Rausch contends, could pull the state off the treadmill of having to regularly shift the primary. The 2020 vote will mark at least the third straight cycle in which Secretary of State William F. Galvin or the Legislature has had to shift the date to meet federal deadlines or avoid conflicts with Jewish holidays. And twice in the past decade — in 2012 and 2016 — officials moved it to a Thursday amid other complications.
“We just keep changing it. We literally have to choose between bad, worse and truly awful,” Rausch said of potential dates. “I truly believe that we’re going to have better voter access” with a June primary.
Current state law designates the primary to be held on the seventh Tuesday before the general election — which next year, is Sept. 15. That qualifies, along with Delaware, as the latest state primary in the country in 2020, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But state officials also have concerns that the Sept. 15 vote wouldn’t leave them enough time to prepare general election ballots for military personnel and voters living overseas by the federally set deadline of Sept. 19.
That prompted the House and the Senate, using a recommendation from Galvin, to both pass the Sept. 1 measure as part of a supplementary spending bill.
The date falls nearly a week before Labor Day, which is Sept. 7, though the Senate also included language to tack on early voting to the primary as well. (The chambers have to reconcile the bill’s differences before sending it to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.)
The shift to Sept. 1 has sparked grumbling, including from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who’s challenging Senator Edward J. Markey in the top-of-the-ticket primary, and some lawmakers, who fear it will clash with a popular moving day for renters and end-of-summer vacation plans. But outside of a Baker veto, it appears Beacon Hill is committed to a pre-Labor Day vote.
Whether there’s appetite for a wholesale change in state law remains to be seen.
Forming a working group to review an issue has been a common tack this session within the Senate, where leaders have shifted debate, or diffused amendments, by creating groups to examine transportation priorities, mental health policies, issues around charter school policies, and the state’s tax code. (That tax group alone could end up taking two years to release recommendations, officials have said.)
Now add the state primary date to that list.
“I think it’s something we should really look at,” said Senator Barry R. Finegold, the Senate chair of the Committee on Election Laws, who will lead the group. “We really need a deep dive. I don’t have any data that shows one way or another [what date is best]. The ultimate goal on this is to have a date that encourage the most people to participate.”