Thursday, September 8, the Thursday after Labor Day, is the date of the state primary elections this year. The odd scheduling follows from a federal law that protects the right of citizens serving overseas to vote in national elections.
Given that most people expect to vote on Tuesdays, a great many will miss the Thursday vote. For future primaries, it is worth asking whether there is a better way to meet the requirements of the federal law.
While the Thursday primaries pertain only to state and district offices, the primary winners will be on the ballot in November along with the Presidential candidates. Under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (“MOVE”) enacted in 2009, if service men and women request absentee ballots more than 45 days before a federal election, then state and local officials are required to transmit them more than 45 days before the election.
That means, in turn, that the ballots must actually be printed more than 45 days before the election. The ballots can not be prepared and printed until the results of the primaries have been fully tabulated and finalized.
So, in practice, well over 45 days must be allowed between the primaries and national elections — which brings us to early September for the primary date. This year’s primaries could have been scheduled for the Tuesday right after Labor Day, but that would hardly be more desirable from a participation standpoint, and would mean that election staff would be working over Labor Day weekend to prepare.
So, Thursday, September 8, it is for this year’s primaries. For the future, what are the alternatives? As long as we are planning on September primaries, the new federal rules will frequently force non-Tuesday primaries depending on the November general election date and on when Labor Day and other holidays fall.
Broadly, the alternatives are to have the primaries at some point in the summer months, perhaps late August, or to have the primaries in late spring.
Most people want to pull back and focus more on their personal lives in the summer, even if they aren’t actually away at the beach. The volunteers who get involved in campaigns and help make people aware of elections have other things on their mind in August. So, August primaries would have very little visibility and would be decided by only a handful of voters.
The other alternative, having state primaries in early June, would elongate the general election cycle dramatically — increasing it from roughly two months to roughly five months. A lot of additional time and money would be spent, especially on the statewide campaigns. And, unless we moved all of the steps in the election process earlier, earlier primaries would mean less time available for primary campaigns.
The political consequences of changing the rules seem indeterminate. Some might argue that an elongated cycle would strengthen challengers to incumbents, but if challengers want to invest in a long campaign, they can start campaigning at any time, and some do start a year or or more before the primaries, especially for the state-wide offices.
I’d appreciate hearing people’s thoughts about which approach — spring Tuesday primaries, August Tuesday primaries, September primaries on varying weekdays (the current status quo), or some other schedule — is preferable.
How about the second Tuesday after Labor Day?
Others have had the same question and we asked the Secretary of State directly about this.
His office replied:
I found this explanation very credible — we often underestimate how much work is involved in getting elections done.
Sounds like there’s a strong case for standardization here. Why do we have 500 different ballot styles? Massachusetts only has ca. 350 municipalities!
I’m assuming the extra ballot styles are for municipalities that are split by US House, MA State, and MA House districts. For example, Arlington is fairly compact geographically, but three different MA House members represent parts of the town. So, Arlington needs at least three different ballots. Belmont can get by with just one. Watertown appears to need two. Boston? I’m guessing maybe two dozen different ballots, depending on how the House and Senate district overlap.
What is critical to me is that the election schedule be stable. The pros and cons of each date do not matter anywhere near as much as consistency
and predictability. So whatever the calendar is right now should continue to be the calendar.
Why 45 days? First class mail only takes a day or two to get around the world. Blank paper ballots could be faxed or printed by the voter in minutes. Electronic voting only takes milliseconds. Is this federal law new? Or just never previously enforced?
It’s a federal rule — possibly responsive to soldiers out in the field.
This has been confusing. We would prefer that if the holiday falls on a Monday, the voting should be changed on the following Tuesday.
We appreciate your valuable briefs on important items. Thank you.
I’m for late Spring anyway. Even if the ‘election cycle’ is longer that way.
Related to this topic is a bigger elephant in the room. The emptiness of my ballot. Nobody’s running! There are a few people on the Democratic ballot, but most of them are unopposed. And there are literally no people running on the Republican, Green, or other party ballots where I vote. So that means two things:
1. The primary is the only election for these offices. Whoever wins the two tiny contests now (sheriff and governor’s council), will automatically win in the general election because there are no candidates to oppose them from any other party, at least any party that has primaries.
2. What does this say about the state of representative government? To me it says that the jobs we’re electing people for are so onerous that nobody wants to run to get elected to them anymore – otherwise they’d be out there competing agains the incumbents, right? Either that, or the system has evolved to such a point that the ‘hill to climb’ is so steep (campaign costs, effort to run, etc. is so great) that no common person feels up to it any more. You might say, “Oh, well the incumbents might be doing a great jog, so we don’t need anyone to oppose them.” In today’s political climate, I really can’t believe that! Either way, our ‘democracy’ is rapidly becoming a sham, a joke. In the old Soviet Union we were told that the elections were fake because there was only one party, only one candidate for each office, so you could either vote for them or not, but they were going to get elected anyway. So, now, here, we are having that right now. Right here in the USA. Nikita Khrushev, here we come!
thanks for the explanation!
Thursday doesn’t seem like much of a hardship. On the other hand, why not the second Tuesday after Labor Day? The latest date this would be is Sept 15 and the earliest date for a national election is November 2nd, so there would be at least 48 days between the two, more than the required 48.
Looking ahead, it looks like we’re likely going to have the same problem in 2018 and 2020. So, we need to figure this out. Maybe we should just officially go with the first Thursday after Labor Day as primary day from now on and trust that people will gradually get used to it. Seems better than voting in early June or late August. Many towns do local elections of Saturdays, so there’s nothing sacred about voting on Tuesdays.
The current status quo. Thank you.
I like the cycles to be as short as possible. As a voter, I want to shorten the endless campaign drone. I don’t even like campaign lawn signs for my own favored candidates. As a sometimes campaign volunteer, I want to avoid burnout.
Which day of the week does not matter to me. Ever consider experimenting with Saturday, like so many other places around the world and some Mass municipalities do?
Saturdays are out of the picture for observant Jews, as Sundays are for many Christians. I am in favor of standardizing a weekday, and letting people get used to it. We can do it folks, it’s not that difficult!
Anyone know the stats in Mass for early voting, absentee, etc for the various levels of elections? I voted just twice early (at town clerk office) and found it easy an convenient. Somehow building in more flexibility would benefit many folks for many reasons (work, religious, kids, etc.). I’d bet work schedules deter more on any weekday than any other.
I don’t have the numbers. I do know that they vary a lot.
Thanks for the explain. With the end of summer vacation, the returns to work and school, it’s complicated to figure out what day it is anyway. (Thursday feels like Tuesday)
Campaigns are way long; folks should learn to pay attention to their civic responsibilities.
Thanks, as usual, for your explanation. My first reaction is that this democracy is so difficult. I consider myself active and engaged but this current political campaign is wearing me down. I think we need shorter, more intense and informative, campaigns. I agree with the commentator that everyone needs to be more engaged in the process, but there are a thousand individual reasons why people are not. Bill Galvin is doing his best to get people to register and vote. Given the restraints at this point, I’m okay with the Thursday voting.
Let’s be honest, Mr. Brownsburger. There are basically no meaningful primary elections happening on Thursday. If you’re a Democrat, you get to vote for the incumbent or no one. If you’re a GOP voter, you get to vote for… usually no one at all.
Democracy has completely broken down here. We are a one party state. And that party doesn’t seem to mind one bit (nor care about what the voters want/need).
Not quite, If you are not satisfied with the incumbent, there is a write-in that you can put your choice.
I think that both the Sheriff job and the Governor’s Council job are important jobs. These races were both contested.
Elections should be on Sundays as in some other countries. I don’t think Christians observe the same kinds of restrictions as Jews do on Saturdays, certainly not all day. Or the election could be held both days. Holding elections on weekdays just suppresses the vote. We no longer live in a society of farmers and shopkeepers.
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