Zakim suggests weekend primary as Galvin mulls date

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BOSTON — It is up to Secretary of State William Galvin to pick a date to hold Massachusetts' 2018 state primary election and his request for public input hasn't pointed to an obvious answer.

The date of the state primary is usually settled without much discussion or public attention, but this year Galvin is required by law to move the primary to an earlier date in September due to a conflict with a Jewish religious holiday.

The target date for the primary — 49 days before Election Day — is Sept. 18, but that date marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. One week earlier, Sept. 11, conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

State law requires Galvin to schedule the primary within seven days of the second Tuesday of September, this year Sept. 11, leaving the secretary a window from Sept. 4 until Sept. 18 to hold the election.

Josh Zakim, a Boston city councilor who is challenging Galvin for the Democratic nomination to be secretary of state, said the secretary should take advantage of the scheduling conflict and plan to hold the statewide election on a weekend day.

"It's an important opportunity to explore something new around a way to increase turnout and voter participation," Zakim said. "The weekend of September 15 or 16 would make a lot of sense, and it's something voting rights activists and civil right activists have long talked about to make it easier for people to vote."

Zakim said he recently heard from Boston Public Schools students who were registered to vote but could not make it from their school to their neighborhood polling places in time to vote in a recent election. Holding the election on the weekend, he said, will make it easier for young people and workers to get to the polls.

"We always talk about engaging the next generation. This would help us do that," Zakim said. "It also makes it easier for working people across the state to vote."

Massachusetts is the only state without a primary election date, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many states hold their primary election before September, the month when Massachusetts holds its primary.

In his written testimony to Galvin's office and in a conversation with the News Service, Zakim said he is surprised "that as 2018 begins, we are the only state in the country that has not yet determined when our primary will be held."

"It's not a surprise when these holidays fall," said Zakim, who reported Tuesday raising $103,681.66 in his first month as a candidate for state secretary.

At a public hearing Galvin scheduled for Tuesday morning, only one person testified. Galvin asked for public input on the primary date, but his office said the feedback was not overwhelmingly in favor of any one particular day.

Benjamin Bloomenthal, an Acton Democrat who is considering running for a state House seat this year, suggested Galvin set the election date for either Tuesday, Sept. 4 or Thursday, Sept. 6 to avoid conflicting with either of two Jewish holidays.

"Sundown on September 18 marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. By holding the primary that day, it comes as a disadvantage to myself and members of my campaign staff who are Jewish who would be otherwise observing the holiday that evening," Bloomenthal said. "Moreover, it impedes the ability for Jewish voters to be able to participate in the primary as they would be completing preparing for the holiday."

Bloomenthal was the only person who spoke at a hearing held to gather input on when to hold the election. But Galvin's office received about 50 emails about the primary date from Bay State voters, mostly requesting that the election be set for a day that would not interfere with the Jewish holidays.

One woman, Florence Johnson of Newburyport, wrote, "I am not Jewish but support respecting those holidays. Thank you." Another commenter, Paul Wesel of Jamaica Plain, wrote, "It may be difficult - but it is essentially critical - that the state be sensitive to the needs of various members of the major religions and not schedule voting on days when religious constrictions might prevent people from voting."

In written comments submitted to Galvin's office, the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts proposed scheduling the primary election for either Thursday, Sept. 13 or Thursday, Sept. 20.

"We would prefer that the date be set as late as possible in the month to allow plenty of time for voters to learn about the candidates and issues after the summer vacation season has ended," Mary Ann Ashton, the organization's president, wrote in a letter. "Although turnout has been lower in the years when the primary election occurred on a Thursday (2012, 2016), it's hard to tease out whether the turnout was lower because of which races were contested on the ballot or when the voting occurred."

Galvin's office must also factor in a federal law that requires that absentee ballots for military voters be available at least 45 days before the general election, which means those ballots must be ready no later than Sept. 22. Holding the election on or around Sept. 18 would make it very difficult for state and local elections officials to meet their deadlines, Michelle Tassinari, director and legal counsel of Galvin's Elections Division, said.

"For local election officials, they still have to certify the winners from the primary. Then we prepare the ballots, so we have to proofread all of them with all of the candidates, then all of the ballot questions that will also be on there and we're expecting a lot of ballot questions this year," she said at Tuesday's hearing.

Deb O'Malley, a spokesperson for Galvin, said Tuesday she expects the secretary will select a date for the primary and "will be announcing the date very soon."

Peter Ubertaccio, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Stonehill College, said Massachusetts should consider moving the date of the primary earlier on the calendar, so as to not conflict with September holidays and to bring the state more in line with the rest of the country.

"The way that we have the primary structured now, you end up with a long summer when voters are not fully engaged in the election and you turn over all that time to intraparty skirmishes and you end up with less time devoted to the general election where you have more of a sense of a competing vision for the state," he said. "By having it hard after Labor Day or competing with the Jewish holidays in September, you run the risk of lowering turnout and compressing that general election timeframe."

Only Louisiana is scheduled to hold a primary election later than Massachusetts in 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the earliest is Texas, which will hold its primary on March 6. Forty-four states will have held their primaries by the end of August, NCSL said.

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