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Mass. Secretary of Commonwealth Galvin talks election security, calls for Biden to step down, and 2020 conspiracies ahead of November vote

Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.
By Simtropolitan, original released by the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Original photographer unknown. - What You Need to Know: Illegal Pyramid Schemes, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Securities Division. Retrieved from Massachusetts State Library., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49300166
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Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.

The top election official in Massachusetts is on a campaign to rebuild voter confidence heading into the fall election. Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin is one of the longest-tenured Massachusetts politicians, in office since 1995. Heading into 2024, Gallup recorded the lowest satisfaction rate with American democracy since it began polling on the issue in 1984: just 28%. The two major party candidates are unpopular and divisive. Even still, Galvin says Massachusetts voters should have confidence in the commonwealth’s system and make their voices heard at the ballot box. He spoke with WAMC about the election, starting with his predictions for turnout.

GALVIN: [It’s] hard to predict the turnout, except to note that we've always had a record turnout the last three presidential elections. I surely expect we're going to have a very high turnout in November. I think the primary, which is on September 3rd, which doesn't have a lot of contests on the Democratic side, is less likely to have as much robust turnout. However, many people, now that voting by mail is an absolute right in Massachusetts, will have the opportunity to vote by mail, and that should increase the turnout somewhat. On the Republican side, there is a primary for the US Senate nomination, a three-way primary. There are some open seats, you have some in the Berkshires, obviously – you have one anyways – and that will intensify the turnout somewhat, but I think it'll be very determined by the amount of activity locally in the September 3rd primary. Nevertheless, in November, it will be a whole different story, not just the intensity of the presidential race, but also the ballot questions, which are being finalized over the next few days. So, all those factors will contribute to a good turnout, we hope. 

WAMC: Now, four years ago, the presidential election ended in accusations of election fraud from the loser of that race, former President Donald Trump. Heading into this presidential election, how do you feel the larger public feelings around election security are given the pervasive narrative of that lie that was perpetuated in the wake of that election?

I think we- Don't forget we had an intervening national election in 2022 for Congress nationwide, and we did not hear and did not see some of the allegations that came about in 2020, and yet it's the same processes. I think there's a concern, certainly amongst not just myself, but other election officials throughout the country, to make sure that people have confidence in the electoral process. The way I've attempted to do it here in Massachusetts over many years is to build confidence in the process itself. So, for instance, we only have paper ballots in Massachusetts. There is no community in the state that votes on anything other than a paper ballot. As you know from voting, the voter themselves marks the card, they're able to see the names of the candidates, they put the marks that are required to make it a vote on the card themselves, and they insert it into the ballot box themselves. So, we build confidence in that way. We also have very accessible recount laws, and they're frequently used in local elections where you do have close races frequently, and the paper ballots are hand-counted at the option of those who request the recount. They are reviewed and observed by the representatives of the candidates. All these factors tend to build confidence in the integrity of the system. But nevertheless, even here in Massachusetts, we have efforts at conspiracy theories and suspicions about local election officials, which is completely, has no basis, but you do get people who use social media to spread these things. I think we're fortunate in Massachusetts. We've had less of it and fewer instances of it, but it has happened. I also think, as I mentioned earlier, the 2022 interim national election gave another opportunity for everyone to review the process, and it was scrutinized, and many states had changed their laws. So, I think the fact that there were no significant disputes coming out of 2022 – and in some cases, there were close races for Congress – I think, helps set the stage for this election. But we'll see what occurs. I'm sure the misinformation and disinformation will be out there again, and it's our job to try to provide solid, reliable information. We hope that voters, as they look for information, whether it's about ballot questions or procedures, they're better to go to official sources and not social media.

Now we're speaking during a historically unpopular pair of presidential candidates battling it out in public. There's been a lot of dismay about both former President Donald Trump and incumbent President Joe Biden heading into the fall. From your perspective, over your many years in office, where do you hear belief or faith in the democratic system at this point? Do you feel like this is a particular nadir? Is that narrative one that rings true to you?

Well, what I'm saying is I think that the nadir was probably reached in 2020. The fact that you have people continue to insist the result that is now widely accepted that Biden won in 2020 – yes, a close election, but he won it – is amazing, but it's still out there. I think the greater concern here is that to make sure people are not suspicious of the system, that there's not going to be disinformation spread about how the process is being done, who's voting. There's been a lot of suspicion generated about vote by mail. We've had a very good experience here in Massachusetts, and even recently, the Republican Party officials have decided that if they don't participate, they're going to be short changing the prospects of their own candidates. I think, you know, we barcode every ballot, we're very thorough in making sure they go out to everybody on time, we have means by which they return them. So, I think confidence, we think, here has been building, but I again, speaking to other secretaries around the country and election officials, there are concerns out there, and there is disinformation out there, and there's deep suspicions based on nothing. But suspicion is easily spread and hard to refute.

Now you've shared your concerns about the amount of money being spent in Massachusetts elections, especially around ballot questions. Can you expand on that a little bit? What are you trying to raise alarms about when it comes to-

Well, the concept of ballot questions was something that was introduced in Massachusetts as a reform to our state constitution in the 1917-1918 constitutional convention, and the concept was that this would be a safety valve on the legislature, allowing the people to vote and directly make laws themselves. Wonderful concept, adopted in many states as part of this reform effort of that period at the time. Unfortunately, what's happened over the recent decades is it increasingly has become very much a business. That is to say, people make money off of promoting ballot questions, and corporations, which can spend with unlimited resources on ballot questions if they affect them – which is pretty broad definition – have taken it up as an opportunity to spend a lot of money, and not just corporations. I mean, other interests do as well, but it becomes very much dominated by the spending of money. Those that spend the most money, whether it's just to get access to the ballot, to get the necessary signatures- Which is no longer, for the most part, a volunteer effort on the part of citizens to organize a ballot question. The signatures are being sold or being paid to be obtained at expensive prices. Millions of dollars get spent as a follow up to the campaign. That's skewering the result, it's influencing the outcome, and that's not what was originally intended. And the concept that you could put complex questions before voters and let the amount of money being spent determine the outcome is troubling. Now, that's not the case in every case. In some instances, the question is so clear that it's not that complicated. But many are complicated or have concepts that need to be explained. We do, as you know, in Massachusetts, send a booklet out to every single voter, not just detailing the all the text of the legislation that's being on the ballot before them, but an argument from each side, summaries. Most importantly, we have a one sentence statement that immediately precedes where the voter cast their ballot at that point on the ballot that says what a yes vote will do and what a no vote will do. That's a one sentence neutral statement that is composed by myself and the Attorney General jointly and together. We have to agree on it. We also have to tell everyone what the one sentence is. We aim for absolute neutrality, not to try to influence or accept the arguments of either side. And I think that's a very important thing for voters to understand, too, that if they're confused about what a yes vote will do or the effect of a no vote, they need to look at that one sentence statement, and they need to look at the book we're going to mail out, the so-called Red Book, which will be coming out in September.

Now, you yourself are a Democrat. There's been a lot of conversation in the party about the decision to continue with President Joe Biden as the nominee for president given his performance in the first debate against Trump. What are your thoughts on that? There's been a lot of calls from some folks in your party for a change on the ticket.

That's not accurate. There hasn't been a lot of calls. There have been some calls, but I think more significantly, there's clear unease. I mean, people are concerned. They saw the performance the other night as being not, certainly not acceptable. I think we did see when the President spoke on the very troubling decision of the United States Supreme Court somebody who was more consistent with what we expected. I think the difficulty of even having the conversation at this late date, of replacing Biden as the nominee, is that it's not very realistic. First and foremost, the convention is now next month. The process of getting the nominee of the convention on the ballot – actually, because of Ohio's diffident attitude to its filing dates – will occur in early August. The idea that you could somehow upend the whole process without some sort of a ripple effect on the campaign at this point would be extremely difficult. Least of not last, if not, certainly not last in consideration, is the amount of money that has been raised by all sides, and the ability of that money to be spent. The Trump campaign just last week, received $100 million donation from Miriam Adelson, a longtime Republican contributor. They also received a $50 million donation last week from another individual, Mr. [Timothy] Mellon. There's been a lot of fundraising on the Democratic side by Biden as well, much of it here in Massachusetts. Those monies don't go to a nominee other than Biden. There's some theories that some could go to [Vice President] Kamala Harris if she was a nominee because she's on the ticket, but they certainly couldn't go to anybody else. So, is it realistic at this point to think about another nominee being successful? I think procedurally, it's kind of late to be having this conversation. Perhaps it should have been had earlier.

Lastly, Secretary, for anyone out there who feels unsure about what it means to vote in Massachusetts this year, what's your sort of final takeaway for them from this conversation? What do you want to impart onto voters?

Well, I want to impart to them first and foremost they can be confident their vote will be counted. Every ballot is counted, and we have very strict procedures in place, and as I mentioned earlier, we have the ability to review it, and we do. We do audits as well. I want to encourage them to do it most of all because while you might be disappointed with the choices we have at this particular point, they should understand the election is not simply about selecting a president. The power of the presidency, which has now been dangerously expanded by [this week’s] United States Supreme Court decision, effects everyone's life for the next four years. So, this is about your future, your family's future for the next four years. So, make the choice, make the best choice you think you can, consider what the implications of either or all candidates are, and make the decision and participate. If you don't participate, you're leaving the decision to others.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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