BOSTON – Last year's Sept. 4 primary election was about two weeks earlier than is typical for Massachusetts, moved up so that it would not conflict with Jewish holidays. But despite the alteration, it was still the sixth-latest primary election in the United States.
Sen. Becca Rausch wants to change that.
The first-term legislator filed a bill that would move the state primary up to June, and she says that the switch would help voters become better engaged and would allow the general election to be more competitive — not to mention the convenience of avoiding the scheduling pitfalls that come in September.
"The primary date right now is very challenging," said Rausch, a Needham Democrat who unseated former Sen. Richard Ross of Wrentham last November. "I think we saw those reasons pop up in 2018 in a pretty obvious way."
Under current Massachusetts law, the state primary is supposed to be held the seventh Tuesday before biennial general elections, usually falling halfway through September. As a result, the key weeks of campaigning fall over the summer or right at the start of the school year. Rausch described it as "not generally a time when people are thinking about politics."
Add to that the challenges of scheduling around holidays and the risk of delay — such as last year, when a recount in the 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary shaved time off an already-abbreviated general election cycle — and, in Rausch's view, the case is clear.
Rausch's bill would set the regular state primary on the second Tuesday in June, a time of year she believes will not damage any specific candidate's chances and would allow party nominees more time to contrast from one another ahead of the November election.
"People deserve to make informed choices," she said. "Everyone's vote is their voice in our representative government. I think moving our primary date enhances people's abilities to use their voices through the voting process in a more significant way."
Under Rausch's proposal, the presidential primary would remain on the first Tuesday in March as current law requires. But the bill would add a key component: any candidate who wishes to make the ballot in Massachusetts must disclose his or her tax returns for the four most recent years.
Rausch said she was motivated to add the provision by President Donald Trump's refusal to release those documents, either before or after winning the election, despite past precedent of candidates doing so.
"The disclosure of tax returns is something that gives voters insight into who this candidate is," she said.
Moving the primary date up would create a longer campaign season and mark a major change in an election system under which Democrats on Beacon Hill have for the most part enjoyed success over the years.
If Rausch wants her proposal to find success in time to affect the 2020 election, action will need to come soon. Committees are just taking shape now, and will then agree on a schedule for public hearings on bills.
The bill — the very first one Rausch filed as a new legislator — came as part of a package of proposed elections reforms. She also filed legislation to make absentee ballots easier to acquire and to implement a ranked-choice voting system similar to that in place in Maine.
Some of those ideas have been circulating around state government for years, but given heightened national focus on voting systems and upholding the right to vote, Rausch hopes to see new leadership in Massachusetts this cycle.
"We have a lot of work to do to ensure our voters get to vote and use their voice at the ballot in the easiest, most accessible, most comprehensive, most informed way," she said. "Anecdotally, there is more of a focus on election laws."