5 takeaways from the secretary of state debate

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Incumbent Bill Galvin had to dodge and defend attacks from all sides.

Bill Galvin and Tanisha Sullivan went head to head in a debate on GBH Wednesday night. File photos

Incumbent Secretary of State Bill Galvin and challenger Tanisha Sullivan sparred on issues like addressing racial voting gaps and implementing mail-in voting during a GBH debate Wednesday night.

Moderated by “Greater Boston’s” Jim Braude, during the debate, the two candidates seemed to agree on most of the issues, but disagreed on who was more committed to issues like generating a higher turnout for elections and getting same-day voter registration passed in Massachusetts.

Largely, the debate consisted of Galvin dodging and defending against attacks from both Sullivan, who is the president of the Boston NAACP, and Braude.

While Galvin has held the office since 1995, Sullivan was the Democratic Party’s pick at the state convention in June.

Still, Galvin has defeated rivals endorsed by the party three times already. Most recently, in 2018, Galvin won the primary by a landslide despite the party endorsing challenger Josh Zakim.

Here are five takeaways from the debate:

Sullivan says vote for her because she will be more proactive about getting higher voter turnout

Braude began the debate by asking Sullivan why voters should elect her instead of keeping Galvin. Here’s what she said:

“This moment in our democracy requires a more proactive Secretary of State’s Office. And what we know is that our state is suffering from deep voter participation gaps,” she said.

Even in 2020, Sullivan said, cities like Dover had 90% voter participation rates while cities like Springfield had rates in the 50s.

“We’ve persistently and consistently had deep voter participation gaps that cut across both racial and economic lines. And in order for us to have a strong democracy, we need to ensure that all people are participating,” she said.

“There’s a role for the Secretary of State’s Office to play, not just from an administrative standpoint, but also from a community-based standpoint — to inspire, motivate, and encourage people to actually get out there and tap that ballot.”

Galvin says vote for him based on his record of improving Massachusetts voting

After asking Sullivan why she should be elected, Braude posed the same question to Galvin. Here’s what he said:

“Were have one of the best election systems in the country. When you talk about encouraging people to participate, I introduced automatic voter registration. We’ve increased registration greatly. We’ve made it much easier to vote. I made permanent vote-by-mail, and we’ve extended early voting. We’ve given people ample opportunities to vote, and we’ve reached out to communities where we can,” he said.

“…The most important thing we have to talk about is the future. We have a very challenging election coming up in 2024…We know that nationally, Republicans in state after state made it harder to vote. And we also know the outcome of all that is going to affect our national policy and us here in Massachusetts. So it’s extremely important that we have somebody that knows about elections, knows how to run elections, and can speak to the national issues as the senior democratic elected official.”

Galvin thinks voter disparities in the state are caused by differing interest in certain elections, Sullivan disagrees

Addressing Sullivan’s point about voter disparities in Massachusetts, Galvin said he thinks it has more to do with inconsistent interest in different elections than any failure of his office.

“There are disparities, but they’re not caused by the process. They’re caused by the interest of people in certain races. We see that in municipal elections all the time, where some communities have this heavy interest in a particular race and other places do not,” he said.

“I do think it is important that we reach out to get people to vote, but we’ve done that.”

Sullivan countered by pointing out that in 2020, Massachusetts ranked 28th in the country for voter registration despite having an automatic system in placeregistrati.

“People turned out because we wanted to get Donald Trump out of office. But it is not enough,” she said later on during the debate.

Sullivan continued, saying that even in 2020, cities such as Springfield, New Bedford, and Lawrence had voter turnout rates in the 50s.

“If we here in Massachusetts are going to be a leader when it comes to protecting and advancing our democracy, we cannot expect voter participation rates year after year that tell us that we’ve got an economic and racial justice problem,” she said.

Sullivan wants to change the narrative on Galvin’s record as secretary of state

Sullivan had many attacks against the secretary ready during the debate.

She started by claiming that voting rights activists had to fight with Galvin to get automatic voter registration implemented, and that when it was implemented, it wasn’t done as intended, forcing the Legislature to address it again this year in the VOTES Act.

Sullivan then went on to claim that vote-by-mail has not been implemented correctly. She said voters are receiving the wrong ballots in the mail, and pointed out that there is still no online portal by which to sign up for mail-in voting, despite this being required in the law that legalized it in Massachusetts.

“The Secretary of State’s Office in the last 25 years under Bill Galvin has found itself on the other side of voting rights litigation brought by voting rights organizations and civil rights activists,” she said.

Galvin defended by saying the Legislature sat on vote-by-mail legislation for months, and that it only passed with his encouragement. He said that he had warned them that if they didn’t pass it quickly enough, he would not have the online portal in place in time.

Galvin said he did send out an application for people to sign up for mail-in voting to everyone in the Commonwealth, and that that application is also available online.

“Clearly, no one has been more enthusiastic about vote-by-mail than me,” he said.

Sullivan next attacked Galvin for the fact that Massachusetts still hasn’t legalized same-day voter registration.

“The fact of the matter is Maine adopted same-day voter registration in 1973. A half a century ago. He’s been in office for over a quarter of a century,” she said.

“If same day voter registration was a priority for the Secretary, it would be done, because he would have leaned in from a leadership standpoint to build consensus with the Legislature to get it done, or he would have found another pathway to ‘yes,’” she said.

When pressed by Braude as to what other pathways there might be, Sullivan suggested putting forth a ballot initiative for same-day voter registration.

She then went on to reference a 2016 case where Galvin was sued over making the deadline to register to vote 20 days before the election, a case which Galvin successfully appealed, keeping the deadline.

Galvin defended himself by saying that the election office needed that time to get ready for the election, and also that in the Supreme Judicial Court decision, the court wrote of his “recurring efforts to pass same-day voter registration.”

“Election-day registration has been a proposal in Massachusetts for over a decade that I have supported,” he said.

Galvin added that same-day voter registration wouldn’t even be possible in Massachusetts if he hadn’t created the Central Voter Registry.

“When I became Secretary of State, every city and town had a separate way of organizing the elections. I had to create, for the first time, a network statewide to do central voting,” he said.

Sullivan went on to criticize Galvin for not only failing to take down administrative barriers to voting, but for not doing enough to combat lack of trust in government and democracy in the state, which she says is partially to blame for low voter turnout.

“It doesn’t matter if folks are registered to vote if they don’t believe in the system,” she said. “There is a role for the Secretary of State’s Office to play, and as Secretary of State, I will ensure that this office has a consistent presence in our community.”

Galvin countered by saying that under his leadership, the Secretary of State’s Office has consistently worked with community groups to help get out the vote.

Braude also had some attacks planned for Galvin

Braude brought up for Galvin a New York Times article which said the 2020 Massachusetts primary “provides a mix of smart policies and harsh deadlines, which possibly disenfranchise numerous voters,” asking Galvin to account for the critique.

Galvin explained that he was criticized for not allowing a grace period after election day for mail-in and absentee ballots to come in. He said he was sued over it, but that the court found in his favor because there was no way they would’ve had votes counted in time.

“When it came to getting vote-by-mail and other aspects of the process through, we were a model. I get consulted by other states and throughout the country and help them,” he said.

“Look at what happened in Pennsylvania. It took them weeks. It’s what happens in New York every time…We were prepared to count [the votes] election night. We did count them election night, transparently and without challenge.”

Braude later challenged Galvin on a 2017 Commonwealth Magazine article which said Galvin’s office had the lowest percentage of staff who are people of color among the constitutional officers in Massachusetts, and that they don’t collect data on this.

Galvin clarified that the office does now collect data on this issue, and that his office is 16% people of color. He also deflected, saying that much of the makeup of his staff isn’t under his control

“I know, for instance, that when I have to absorb other agencies such as the Registry of Deeds, they are county employees that were employed under union rules. My control over those agencies is very limited as far as populations,” he said.

Galvin added that his office has worked to diversify its staff, and that most of his directors are women.

Sullivan is hostile to allowing Trump on the ballot again, and potentially, so is Galvin

Braude asked both candidates if they would prevent former President Donald Trump from being listed on the primary ballot in 2024 given the Jan. 6 riot and that the 14th Amendment says one cannot run for federal office if they’ve engaged in an insurrection against the U.S.

Galvin said he would keep Trump off the ballot if Trump were to be criminally convicted of being a part of an insurrection.

Sullivan said she would try to keep Trump off the ballot no matter what, given that there is no requirement in the 14th Amendment that says the person must be criminally convicted.

“It will be challenged. It will likely go to the Supreme Court,” she said. “But I believe that it is important for us to do what is right in the interest of our democracy and let it go to court.” 

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