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Early primary voting: Its time has come

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file/Globe Staff

With two dozen Democratic candidates lining up for the 2020 presidential election and a hometown candidate challenging the Republican incumbent, well, the time couldn’t be better for Massachusetts to introduce early voting into the primary election process.

It’s one of those ideas that has been kicking around ever since early voting in general elections took off like wildfire just a few election cycles ago. More than one million registered voters (about 21 percent of the state’s total registered voters) cast early ballots in the 2016 presidential contest.

So among the amendments the Senate will be asked to vote on when it debates its version of the fiscal 2020 budget this week is one proposed by Secretary of State Bill Galvin and filed by Senator Michael Brady of Brockton to allow for five days of early voting (Feb. 24 to Feb. 28) prior to the March 3 Massachusetts presidential primary.

Now it’s entirely likely that many in today’s vast array of Democratic contenders will have fallen by the wayside by then. Still, interest in this bluest of states is likely to be higher than ever. And as Galvin is quick to point out, the tail end of winter can be a rather problematic time for planning just about anything — including an election.


Under the Galvin proposal, early voting would also apply to any city or town elections scheduled at the same time. Since city and town clerks would be accepting those early ballots anyway, that extension of the law makes all the sense in the world. But it also points to the more pressing need to open up the entire state and local primary voting process to early voting.

In this overwhelmingly one-party state, the Democratic primary is often the election — or the most hotly contested aspect of it, anyway. Voters in, say, the Seventh Congressional District, where in 2018 Ayanna Pressley ousted incumbent Michael Capuano in the primary and there was no Republican candidate in the general election, might agree. So too in the high profile free-for-all that was the Third District primary race won by Lori Trahan.


And what about those down-ballot county races or off-year city council races, which could certainly benefit from that small boost in attention that early voting can provide?

What an expansion of early voting in all Massachusetts contests would accomplish, apart from providing convenience to voters, is provide a larger window of opportunity so that should there be a conflict with the Jewish High Holy Days — as there was in 2018 — we wouldn’t end up voting the day after Labor Day.

There was an unsuccessful attempt last year in the Senate to expand early voting to all primary elections. But often good ideas take a little while to take hold on Beacon Hill. And incumbents, well, have a tendency to like elections just as they are.

That, of course, doesn’t apply to the current push to have early voting simply for the presidential primary — and there the House should certainly follow suit. (Its addition to the budget would, of course, assure its timely passage.)

But the real test of political courage will be whether lawmakers tackle the broader issue — expanding early voting to state and local primaries — or opt instead to stick to a status quo that protects their own incumbency.