Galvin’s low energy dampens voting innovation

Secretary's elections division runs smoothly, but change comes slowly, if at all

SINCE THE FLORIDA election debacle in 2000, the United States has seen dramatic developments in the administration of elections. States are modernizing and innovating so much that the act of voting in 2016 would be almost unrecognizable to a voter from the 1990s. But not in Massachusetts. Here in the Commonwealth, where innovation is typically a point of pride, voters from the 1990s would feel right at home today.

The state’s failure to keep up with the times stems from a leadership vacuum. This vacuum is especially pertinent now, because in November, for the first time, state law will allow voters to cast early ballots — a mode of voting already available in most states and already utilized by 25 to 30 percent of American voters on a regular basis. However, because of the lethargy that characterizes the state election authority, we are at risk of a botched implementation of the law; few voters may be able to take advantage of the opportunity to vote early. Even in this one small area in which legislation has already been passed that would help catch Massachusetts up with the rest of the country, leadership is effectively working to preserve the status quo, not by openly opposing reform, but just by being — in the words of Donald Trump — very low energy.

Secretary of State William Galvin has been the state’s election overseer for more than 20 years. In spite of periodic complaints about his use of Machiavellian tactics, Galvin has cultivated a reputation of competence in the election office. Under his watch, the state has seen few dramatic problems at the polls that threaten the integrity of our election system.

But when one looks around the country and sees how other states have worked to make voting easier for citizens and more efficient for administrators, it is clear that Galvin’s reputation for competence is undeserved. That’s not because he is actively delinquent in his duties, but because he just does not do very much. After two decades in office, Galvin has made little effort to use his position to advance an agenda for reform. Just look at other states to see how far we have fallen behind.

Eitan Hersh

Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine now have Election Day registration, as do a number of other states across the country. Election Day registration has been one of the most successful election reforms in recent years, allowing eligible citizens to vote even if they had not registered ahead of time. The reform is popular, inexpensive, and it increases voter participation. Election Day registration is especially useful for renters and young adults — people who move frequently and must re-register to vote after each move.

In the past, when Election Day registration has come up in state legislation, Galvin officially supported it, but spent his time raising objections and concerns rather than helping to draft a good law and advocating for its passage. As Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker wrote back in 2008, Galvin’s tepid support for Election Day registration contributed to the bill’s failure that year. “The real issue here…[is] inertia,” wrote Walker. “There just isn’t any sense of urgency about voting issues.” Galvin’s concerns about Election Day registration have continued. Just last year, Galvin suggested the reform leads to voter fraud, despite the fact that the experience in other states provides little support for such a concern.  Raising objections rather than finding solutions has contributed to the lack of an Election Day registration law in the state.

Another popular reform that has proven to increase voting in other states, particularly among low-participation citizens, is Election Day vote centers. In this reform, which has gained traction in Colorado, Indiana, Texas, and several other states, voters are allowed to cast ballots in any of several locations throughout their municipality. Suppose you live in Dorchester and work downtown. With vote centers, you would be able to vote on a lunch break downtown, or at a convenient location on the way to your kid’s school, or anywhere else in the city, rather than only in the small precinct location to which you are now assigned. By allowing citizens to vote at more locations during the middle of the day, vote centers reduce lines at the polls throughout the city. They are also extremely popular with voters, increase turnout, and can lead to major cost savings for municipal governments.

The most popular election reform throughout the country is probably early voting. Most states now have some form of early voting.  Early voting has actually not been shown to increase overall participation, but it is quite appealing to voters. Voters seem to like the added flexibility. Older citizens particularly take advantage of early voting opportunities. For those who might be put off from voting by uninviting weather on Election Day, or who are traveling midweek for business, early voting offers the chance to vote on a different day of the week.

In 2014, former governor Deval Patrick signed an election reform bill that requires municipalities to offer early voting to citizens for 10 days ahead of Election Day. At a minimum, cities and towns are required to open up their clerk’s office to those wishing to cast early ballots. But municipalities are also permitted to open multiple locations and extend hours to evenings and weekends.

The early voting law has the potential to create real problems in November. The law was poorly written and risks being poorly implemented. For example, a new law like this should not be rolled out in a presidential election year, when voter participation is at its highest. As other states’ experiences suggest, early voting should be piloted in a lower turnout setting. The secretary of state ought to have been intimately engaged in the drafting of the law so that this mistake would not have been made.

In implementing the law, there must also be active involvement of the state election office. Without it, most cities and towns will do the bare minimum to comply with the law. They will keep their clerk’s office open during regular business hours. A few savvy voters might show up and cast an early ballot. But everyday citizens will not even realize they could have voted early. The status quo will prevail.

For the reform to really succeed, cities and towns need to open multiple polling locations, offer evening and weekend hours, and advertise that they’re doing so. A coalition of civic organizations led by Common Cause is trying to lobby municipal governments to go above and beyond the state’s minimum requirements so that citizens can actually take advantage of the new law.

But implementing early voting in this more serious way actually requires dealing with a number of complexities. If municipalities decide to make available multiple early voting locations, they will need to make sure that the right ballot gets to the right voter, that the ballots are tabulated properly, and that the voting lists are kept up-to-date so that voters are not able to vote multiple times in multiple locations or on multiple days.

Implementing early voting — and any other election modernization reform — requires actively dealing with complexities like these, complexities that local election administrators do not always have the bandwidth to address. They are often risk averse, and lack funding and time to adeptly improve elections from how they have always been done in the past.

With Massachusetts’s decentralized town governments, state leadership is essential. The one office that has the resources and is charged to make election administration a priority is Galvin’s elections division. On issues big and small, Galvin’s counterparts in other states have been vocal advocates for modernizing election systems. They have promoted early voting and same-day registration.

In a recent book profiling the work of state secretaries, law professor Jocelyn Benson describes a secretary of state who pores over results each year to find the communities with low turnout. The official then actively studies the circumstances in those places to find ways to do better next time. Benson also profiles election officials who launch statewide campaigns to make sure high school graduates are registered to vote, who advocate for ex-felons to have their voting rights reinstated, who promote and honor voting by celebrating citizens who have showed up to vote for many consecutive elections. In this book about state election officers, no accomplishment of Galvin is mentioned.

Without the secretary of state taking an active leadership role with early voting, the likely result for Massachusetts will be that few citizens will participate in early voting and that the opportunity to vote early will vary dramatically by jurisdiction. A few municipalities are planning to give voters the chance to vote on weekends or in convenient early-voting locations. In those cities and towns, voters will get to see what voting looks like in the rest of the country. But in most places, the status quo will prevail. What’s worse, confusion about the law could potentially lead to problems at the polls. This is all thanks in part to the sleepy leadership of Galvin.

The Boston Globe’s endorsement of Galvin for his 2014 re-election bid said, apparently without intended irony, that “his tenure has been marked by smooth management of elections and the implementation of policies making voting easier for residents of the Commonwealth, such as the distribution of ballots in languages other than English.”

Meet the Author

Eitan Hersh

Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University
Printing non-English ballots is a fine reform (a reform which, incidentally, Galvin opposed), but that’s still a mighty short list of accomplishments for a 20-year tenure in office. I am not sure the bar could possibly be set any lower. The Commonwealth needs a secretary of state who can be a true champion of our democracy’s most sacred duty and right.

Eitan Hersh is assistant professor of political science at Yale University and author of Hacking the Electorate. His expertise is in American politics, election administration, and information technology. He lives in Brookline.