In May 2014, after a long campaign by Common Cause and the Massachusetts Election Modernization Coalition, Governor Deval Patrick signed a comprehensive election modernization bill into law, establishing, among many other reforms, early voting in our state.
Needless to say, we’re very excited about this. As our Executive Director Pam Wilmot has said, “If implemented well, [early voting] will allow many people whose work or family obligations preclude them from standing in line or even getting to a poll on Election Day an opportunity to vote.” The system promises to modernize our democracy and expand voting opportunity.
Early voting will take effect in November with the 2016 general election. In preparation, Common Cause and the Massachusetts Election Modernization Coalition launched the Early Voting Challenge, a campaign to encourage local officials to meet standards we believe will promote successful implementation of the early voting. However, our effort and local preparation face a major roadblock.
Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin has yet to release his guidelines and regulations that will tell the state’s 351 cities and towns the specifics of how to implement the new system.
This is a big problem with significant implications. Cities and towns must plan their budgets and election procedures for the fall now but many feel unable to act without the Secretary’s official guidelines. Less than 6 months before the November election, local officials and voters are still waiting.
A brief look at the past year shows that several times Secretary Galvin has promised, then failed, to release guidelines.
1) November 2015
“Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin expects to issue the regulations soon.” (Full article here.)
Early voting will bring positive change to the Commonwealth’s election process. However, especially in the first year, the success of early voting depends heavily on local preparation. In a meeting with Secretary Galvin’s office in late 2015, Common Cause Massachusetts and the Election Modernization Coalition strongly suggested Galvin release his regulations by the start of 2016 in order to give time for cities and towns to plan a smooth rollout of the new system. Around that same time, his office said they would issue them “soon.” After seven months, “soon” has officially passed.
2) February 2016
“We hope to have the regulations on early voting announced before the end of this calendar month [February, 2016].” (Video here.)
In February 2016, Secretary Galvin told the Joint Committee on Ways and Means he expected to release regulations by the end of February. As well, he predicted more than 3 million voters will cast ballots in the November general election, rivaling record turnout in 2012 and 2008. High voter participation coupled with the brand new early voting system requires that election officials prepare, troubleshoot, and publicize the process—all of which start with Secretary Galvin’s regulations. As Secretary Galvin continues to delay the release of early voting regulations, local officials lose time to prepare.
3) March 2016
“[Secretary Galvin’s] spokesman, Brian McNiff, told The Standard-Times ‘we’re looking at next month [April 2016]’ to issue guidelines for local officials.” (Full article here.)
While March did not bring Galvin’s regulations, it did bring presidential primaries and a preview of this year’s general election: high turnout and high reliance on early voting. Near-record turnout in the March 1 presidential primary certainly supports Galvin’s anticipation of historic turnout in the fall and suggests early voting could be in high demand. Yet, even considering his own predictions, Secretary Galvin delayed—again. On March 9, The South Coast Today reported that, “Secretary of State William Galvin and local town and city clerks and elections officials have yet to puzzle out what has to be done to prepare for a smooth introduction [of the new early voting law].”
4) May 2016
“Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin, said that his office is still consulting with city and town clerks to get their input before finalizing the rules, which are expected later this month [May, 2016].” (Full article here.)
As of this month, Massachusetts voters and local officials are still waiting for Secretary Galvin’s guidance on early voting. The problem is only getting more significant because the success of the state’s inaugural round of early voting depends heavily on the Secretary providing his regulations to localities far in advance of the November 2016 election—and local officials are concerned.
Tewksbury Town Clerk Denise Graffeo has gone on record saying, “We are waiting for the Secretary of State to roll out regulations…”
Woburn City Clerk William Campbell said, “It would be best if we could hear sooner rather than later…We’ll make it work, but we just don’t know how it’s going to work.”
Wilmington Town Clerk Sharon George noted, “It’s going to cost municipalities more money because right now a lot of towns are doing their budgets and we have no idea how much money to put in for early voting. There are a lot of things that are very much up in the air.”
While some communities have started planning for early voting on their own initiative, many more municipalities are still waiting for leadership and direction from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office before taking action. We hear this far too often from local officials when we reach out to them as part of our Early Voting Challenge. Many local election officials want to meet the best practices we recommend but feel they must first wait for the Secretary’s guidance.
The longer these officials have to wait, the less time they have to prepare for a high turnout election and ensure every voter is able to take equal advantage of the new early voting law. The delays have gone on long enough! Secretary Galvin must finalize and release his office’s guidelines and regulations for early voting right away.
About the author: Nathan Greess is a 2016 summer intern at Common Cause Massachusetts.
Issues: Voting and Elections
Tags: Early Voting Challenge