In what boils down to an election about elections, Secretary of State Bill Galvin and challenger Josh Zakim, a 34-year-old Boston city councilor, squared off in the first and only televised debate of their Democratic primary race Tuesday.
No one will argue that this one wasn’t a debate.
Moderated by WGBH host Jim Braude Tuesday night on a special edition of Greater Boston, the contentious, if wonky, debate featured Galvin and Zakim heatedly arguing over who would best administer and improve the state’s voting system, with the 67-year-old secretary of state often having to play defense against the myriad of criticisms from Zakim, who won the upset endorsement from party activists at the Massachusetts Democratic convention in June.
The fiery event touched on everything from the date of next month’s Massachusetts state primary to their own personal voting records and views. Here are four takeaways from some of the most combative 30 minutes of election law-related content you’ll see on TV.
About that primary date
The debate kicked off on the subject of the particular Sept. 4 date of next month’s state primary elections, which has been a point of conflict since near the beginning of the race. Zakim has argued that Galvin’s choice of that particular day, which is the Tuesday after Labor Day, was “certainly not a move to increase turnout” by the 24-year incumbent.
Galvin argued, however, that his choices were constricted. Federal law requires that absentee ballots for overseas military members must be available 45 days before the general election, so the primary this year couldn’t be after Sept. 22, and the two prior Tuesdays, Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, fall on Jewish holidays.
In 2016, Massachusetts held its primary on a Thursday, but Galvin noted that Thursday, Sept. 6, is the first day of school for many districts, including Boston. Zakim said he would have picked a later Thursday or tried weekend voting and suggested Galvin’s choice of Sept. 4 was motivated by personal consideration.
“In the past, Bill’s office has said that it doesn’t make sense, it’s actually a bad idea, to have a primary election the day after Labor Day,” Zakim said. “They said that publicly. Now all of a sudden, on the first time he has a primary challenge in over a decade, to set it on this date is irresponsible.”
What about bigger voting reforms?
Zakim has argued that he’d be a “proactive, progressive secretary of state” and has centered his campaign platform around reforms intended to increase voter turnout, such as same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, weekend elections, and even ranked choice voting.
However, Galvin says that Massachusetts effectively already has such a figure at the position.
“Every major progressive change that’s occurred in Massachusetts election laws has come about because of me,” he said Tuesday.
Galvin noted that the automatic voter registration bill he backed this year was passed by legislators and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker last week (the system will begin in 2020).
“That would not have happened without my advocacy,” he said.
Galvin said that the same stood for the implementation of the Bay State’s online voter registration system in 2015 and early voting in 2016, as well as the state’s “motor voter” and mail-in voter registration programs.
“I’m tired of listening to misstatements of statistics,” he said. “We have a great turnout in Massachusetts. We were just rated by the Pew Institute at MIT as being eighth-in-the-nation best because of, in part, of our turnout and registration.”
The 67-year-old secretary of state also noted that he, like Zakim, has also called for same-day voter registration, even if lawmakers have not made progress on the issue.
Zakim, who called Galvin a “recent convert to a lot of the positions I’ve taken,” noted that the secretary of state’s office successfully fought a court ruling last year that said the state’s 20-day voter registration deadline was unconstitutional, but the secretary of state said it was because the nature of the ruling would have caused “administrative chaos.”
Galvin said he supported same-day registration “years ago.” According to a 2010 report, he was in favor of testing the system in a limited capacity to see if it works. Either way, Galvin went on to say that he had “never” seen Zakim at a hearing on the subject.
“Well I haven’t seen you at any of our City Council discussions on the…” Zakim began to respond.
“Because the City Council has nothing to do with making law,” Galvin shot back. “I know it’s a fantasy down there that you do, but you don’t.”
Zakim said the comment was an “insult” to all city council members in Boston and around the state. Galvin replied that it was a “fact.” For the record, the City Council does have some limited local lawmaking powers.
C for security?
Braude also asked Galvin about the C grade that the Center for American Progress gave Massachusetts in a recent report on election security. The report said that the state’s “failure to carry out mandatory post-election audits after every election leaves the state open to undetected hacking and other Election Day problems.” It also said the practice in Massachusetts of allowing overseas voters serving in the military or living abroad to electronically return their ballot was “notoriously insecure.”
Galvin noted that most states got a C or worse in the report (12 states did receive B’s; none got A’s), though he acknowledged the electronic delivery of overseas ballots was “an issue we have to confront” that wasn’t ideal. However, he said voters in some areas wouldn’t be able to send back their ballots in time for the election by traditional mail, even with the 45-day window. Galvin said his office is closely watching an initiative in West Virginia using blockchain voting for overseas citizens.
Zakim, however, said the C grade Massachusetts received in the report was “unacceptable” for a state with so much “brain power.”
“We should be getting A’s,” he said.
Zakim said he was also interested in the West Virginia initiative, but added that he would work to strengthen the state’s election security infrastructure. In response, Galvin reiterated his belief that the state’s paper-ballot election is already secure.
“We have not been hacked,” he said. “We have a secure system.”
Zakim said that paper ballots were “great,” but that the state’s central voter file was a potential target.
‘You don’t vote’
And then there were the times when the debate devolved into issues unrelated to policy.
Irritated with Zakim’s criticisms of his record, Galvin took aim at his challenger’s personal record of voting during primary elections at one point in the debate.
“You didn’t vote in 2006 when Deval Patrick was nominated. You didn’t vote in 2004 when John Kerry was nominated,” he said. “You’re attacking me saying that I’m responsible for lower turnout in primaries, and you don’t vote.”
Zakim, who was an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 (but said he didn’t vote there either), countered that Galvin’s nearly quarter-century in office was the reason for the 30 percent decrease in the state’s primary voting rate since 2002.
“You have built this empire in the secretary of state’s office, and it has led to lower turnout in our elections,” he said. “We are not one of the 17 states with same-day registration. To say that you don’t bear any responsibility for that is unacceptable.”
Galvin also repeatedly went after Zakim for his recent decision to not agree to a pledge to not accept any help from third-party political groups in their race and suggested the city councilor was benefiting from corporate funding.
Zakim changed the subject, bringing up the recent indictment of a Cambridge man, who worked as a tech consultant in the registry division of Galvin’s office for nearly a decade, for his alleged involvement in a penny stock fraud scheme. The city councilor suggested that the man could have access to the state’s central voter file or other sensitive records. Galvin downplayed the man as a contractor and said he had nothing to do with election security.
“You’re trying desperately to create some kind of nexus that doesn’t exist,” he said.
After being asked by Braude, Zakim again raised Galvin’s record as a state representative voting against abortion rights. Even though the issue is unrelated to the duties of the secretary of state, Zakim said Tuesday that Galvin’s record was “really unacceptable,” particularly as President Donald Trump is poised to change the balance of the Supreme Court.
“The voters will decide what’s important, but it is important what values — what core values — their elected official pose,” he said.
Galvin responded that, in his view, abortion is a “personal moral issue,” adding that he has “aggressively” supported pro-choice women and that his own civil rights law has helped protect access to clinics.
“I’m very proud of that,” he said, accusing Zakim of again trying to distract. “My record has been very clear.”