The election for Massachusetts secretary of state is shaping up as a battle between different generations over who can best represent the state today.
The Democratic primary next month pits a 71-year-old longtime incumbent, against a 48-year-old challenger who has never held political office.
Bill Galvin, who has held the job since 1995 and is running for an eighth term, is facing an aggressive challenge for the Democratic nomination from Tanisha Sullivan, who leads the Boston chapter of the NAACP.
The secretary of state — or secretary of the commonwealth, as it’s officially known in Massachusetts — oversees historical and public records, including the registry of deeds. The secretary is also responsible for registering businesses.
And perhaps most important, the secretary is the state’s chief election official. That’s what Galvin, who was had the office for 27 years, talks most about.
“I am now the senior Democratic election official in the United States,” Galvin said at the state Democratic convention in Worcester in June. “And I intend to use that role to make sure that citizens throughout our country have the opportunity to vote.”
At the start of the pandemic, Galvin advocated for no-excuse mail-in voting and then pushed to make it permanent. With the help of mail-in voting, Massachusetts recorded its highest voter turnout in decades.
But Tanisha Sullivan, the civil rights attorney who’s challenging Galvin, has said there’s more work to do.
“When it comes to voting rights, you better believe I’m fighting for more, because here in Massachusetts, we are not leading,” Sullivan told Democratic delegates at the state convention.
While overall turnout surged in 2020, Sullivan said it remained too low in a number of communities across the state, especially among immigrant, Black and Hispanic residents, “leaving behind far too many voices.”
Sullivan said she wants to help make Massachusetts a national model on a number of issues.
“My experience as a civil rights leader, 20 years as a lawyer, and my lived experience all tell me that reactive, status-quo leadership is a threat to the advancement of voting and abortion rights, economic and racial justice,” she said.
At a recent debate sponsored by WBUR, Sullivan cast herself as an agent of change who would use the powers of the office to help affirm and advance a number of rights. For example, she said she would restrict access to public records that could help identify the home addresses of abortion providers.
For his part, Galvin said he’s running on a proven record that includes higher turnout and an expanded vote-by-mail program that is “putting democracy in the hands of tens of thousands of Massachusetts voters.” He said that the New York Times noted the state’s election work could be a potential model for the nation, despite some challenges.
The WBUR debate became increasingly testy, as Sullivan accused Galvin of doing too little to advance voting rights.
She pointed out that it took a pandemic for the state to institute mail-in-voting, while other states did it long ago. And she noted Massachusetts still hasn’t approved election-day registration, which Maine adopted in 1973. She blamed the long-serving incumbent for the delay.
“Bill Galvin has been in office for over a quarter of a century; if he could not get it done before, why should we believe that he can get it done now?” she asked.
Galvin responded, saying he supports election-day registration but the state legislature rejected it.
But Sullivan said the NAACP had to sue Galvin to force him to do more to register voters. Galvin fired back, calling the lawsuit frivolous, and accused Sullivan of misstating the facts, arguing that he proposed and successfully pushed for automatic voter registration.
“It just shows my opponent’s ignorance of the office and the laws around it,” he said.
Some have compared this race to Ayanna Pressley‘s successful challenge of the long-serving U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano in 2019. Like Pressley, Sullivan is trying to make history as the first woman and the first person of color to hold the office.
But Galvin has shown that he knows how to win. Four years ago, he fought off a challenge from fellow Democrat Josh Zakim. And he led Sullivan in a recent poll from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and WCVB.
“What’s really going here is an incumbency advantage,” said Tatishe Nteta, associate professor of political science and director of the UMass poll.
The survey, conducted in late June, also found that many voters are undecided or aren’t following the race.
The biggest challenge for Sullivan is that Galvin is much better known, since he has served in office for so long.
“It’s a really difficult set of obstacles to try and unseat an incumbent who most people would say has done a relatively good job in the position,” Nteta said, even though he believes Sullivan is raising valid concerns about lower voter turnout in certain communities.
The winner of the Democratic primary will take on Republican Rayla Campbell, who also hopes to become the first Black woman to hold the office.
Campbell is a conservative firebrand who opposes the expansion of voting by mail and has raised doubts about the integrity of the 2020 election.
Still, whoever wins the Democratic primary next month is favored to win in November because Massachusetts is such a deep blue state. The last time a Republican won the office was 1946.