Bill Galvin, 67, has been the Massachusetts secretary of state since 1995, a tenure that has given progressive challenger Josh Zakim an opportunity to portray him as a barnacle-encrusted relic from another era. Zakim, a 34-year-old Boston city councilor, has applied himself to that task with relish. Unfortunately, he’s done so with more zest than precision. One may agree with certain aspects of his critique, such as his contention that Galvin could have been an earlier and more forceful voice for same-day voter registration, but too much of it seems wide of the mark.
Yes, Galvin has held the post for a long time. But in an office with diverse and important responsibilities, he has run an efficient, effective, continually modernizing, scandal-free operation. As the first secretary of state to confront both the promise and peril of the digital age, he has struck an appropriate balance between pursuing the voter conveniences made possible by the Internet and the necessary safeguards for the election process.
He has pushed for, implemented, and overseen the state’s central voter registry, a secure system that facilitates online registration and mail-in registration, and lets cities and towns keep their voting rolls up-to-date and accurate. This last legislative session, he helped midwife passage of the state’s new automatic voter registration law, which enrolls voters (with an opt-out option) after transactions with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth.
At other times, Galvin has sounded a wise cautionary note. For example, he moved the state away from punch-card ballots to mark-by-hand paper ballots in the mid-’90s, several years before the chaotic 2000 presidential election controversy in Florida, with its hanging and dimpled chads.
As a financial-industry watchdog, another of his office’s function, Galvin has been a consistent scrutinizer of, and prod to, the securities industry. There, he has served as an effective ombudsman for small investors misled, mistreated, or bilked by financial industry firms, recouping tens of millions of dollars for them.
One example is his recent embarrassment of MetLife, which had failed to pay pension benefits to several hundred Massachusetts residents that the company said it couldn’t locate and assumed were deceased. Galvin’s office found that more than half of them were still alive and, in some cases, at the very addresses MetLife had on file.
Galvin is hardly a charismatic, back-slapping politician. He is instinctually something of a loner. But his independent style has served him well given the responsibilities of his office. Although he has solid working relationships with the legislature, he has never become a favor-trading Beacon Hill insider.
Perhaps that’s why Zakim has reached back into irrelevance as he has persecuted his political case against Galvin, trying to make hay of decades-old legislative votes against abortion rights and same-sex adoption — issues that have nothing to do with the conduct of the secretary of state’s office. Similarly, he has accused Galvin of scheduling this year’s primary for the Tuesday after Labor Day “to protect entrenched incumbents like himself.” In fact, the confluence of the Jewish holidays in September and the federal requirement to mail requested absentee ballots to military personnel and Americans overseas at least 45 days before the general election left him to choose the least bad date.
For his part, Galvin has noted that Zakim, an aspirant for the role of the state’s chief election officer, failed to vote in a variety of elections. That’s not the world’s most serious failing, but it is at least an accurate critique.
Galvin says that if he wins another term, the next four years will probably be last as secretary of state. That’s a wise recognition that no one should hold a statewide post forever. Still, as he demonstrated with his early and forceful push-back against Donald Trump’s illegal-voting allegations, Galvin is someone Massachusetts should be glad to have in office during this presidency. Democrats should nominate him once again, for a capstone term to finish out a consequential public career.