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WATCH: Democrats vying for secretary of state gather for debate

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Tanisha Sullivan, President of the NAACP Boston Chapter and William Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at WBUR for a Massachusetts Secretary of State Democratic Primary Debate on Radio Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Tanisha Sullivan, President of the NAACP's Boston chapter and Secretary of State Bill Galvin at WBUR for a Democratic primary debate on Radio Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The two Democrats running for Massachusetts secretary of state stepped into WBUR's studios for a hour-long debate Monday morning.

It was the first debate scheduled between longtime incumbent William Galvin and Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP's Boston chapter since 2017, as the pair move to shore up support ahead of the statewide primary election on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

Galvin has served as secretary of state since 1995, and the 71-year-old is seeking his eighth term with this year's campaign. If Sullivan, a 48-year-old attorney and civil rights activist, unseats Galvin, she would become the first woman and first person of color elected to the role.

(Rayla Campbell, an AM radio host, is running unopposed in the Republican Party primary for the role. It's likely the winner of the Democratic race will face off against Campbell in the November general election.)

The debate is the second in a series of five moderated events meant to help voters make decisions in this year's statewide elections; the series kicked off with a half-hour state auditor debate between the two Democrats in the race.

WBUR, WCVB Channel 5 and The Boston Globe planned all five debates. Tiziana Dearing, host of WBUR's Radio Boston, moderated the first two.

You can watch a replay of the debate here:

Debate Highlights

Here are highlights from the candidates' remarks throughout the debate, lightly edited for clarity. The terms "secretary of the commonwealth" and "chief elections officer" refer to the secretary of state.

Opening Statements

Sullivan: "I'm running for secretary of state because our country is facing existential threats to our democracy. And I believe that Massachusetts must become a frontline beacon for our nation. 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. These are the fights we are in.

"We are in the fight for the soul of our democracy. But there's a choice to be made in this race. This is the tale of two candidates, one who believes in what's possible for this office to advance our democracy, and the other who, for over the past 27 years, has found himself all too frequently on the opposite side of the civil and voting rights community. This moment demands more. We should expect more. And I have a vision for how together we can deliver more."

Galvin: "I have been a champion of voters rights, not just here in Massachusetts, but throughout the country. We have the best record in the country when it comes to expanding voting rights. We had record turnouts in 2020. At this hour, I am literally putting democracy in the hands of tens of thousands of Massachusetts voters with a vote-by-mail program that many have chosen to use. I have conducted elections honestly and accurately. The New York Times described my administration of elections as a model for the nation. We are second to none when it comes to that.

"In the area of securities regulation, once again, we are a model for the nation. I have consistently returned money to Massachusetts investors who are defrauded. Just recently we returned over $5 million to Vanguard Massachusetts customers who were disadvantaged by the conduct of their accounts. Lastly, I have been very aggressive in opening up new programs such as our address confidentiality program that has protected victims of domestic violence."

On abortion rights and privacy

Sullivan: "This office can and should be on the front lines in our abortion fight ... This office could be doing more through the corporations division to hold our companies accountable for ensuring that they are providing access to reproductive care for their workers ... We have a secretary of state who is anti-abortion. In my case, I believe that this office can and should be doing more to ensure that we don't find ourselves in the situation of Texas, where ... women who were seeking to access an abortion or health care providers who are engaged in providing quality health care to folks ... could have their private information readily accessible to the public.

Galvin: "First of all, I believe ultimately an abortion is a personal decision of the woman. I've made that clear ... Any other representation about me or my office is untrue. Secondly, the legislature, in the recently passed expansion of abortion rights, in fact, gave me and my office the authority to protect the privacy of abortion providers and others. Those that drafted that bill, many of whom ... have been very strong in the pro-choice movement, have confidence in me. They trust me and they know why."

On supporting small businesses

Sullivan: "The secretary of state is really the entry point for business here in Massachusetts. If you want to do business in Massachusetts, you have to register your business to do so and file fees."

"In 2020, when our small business community had havoc wrecked upon it, the secretary of state's office announced that all of their fees had to be paid before they could get certificates of good standing. You know what that did? That prevented many small businesses from being able to access ARPA/PPP funding, funding that was needed for those businesses to actually make it to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As secretary of state, I am going to center economic opportunity. Why? Because a strong economy is central to a strong democracy."

Galvin: "During the pandemic, I was in the office every day. And my staff, at great personal risk to themselves, were helping small businesses apply for PPP. The fees are set by the legislature and the governor; they're not set by me. But we were there. I don't know where you were, but I know where I was. And I know many small businesses would not have survived without the PPP effort that we were able to obtain for them. So I think your criticism is misplaced and shows a misunderstanding of the role."

On same day registration

Tiziana Dearing: "The VOTES Act... was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in June of this year, and ensures that mail in ballots in early voting are permanent options for Massachusetts elections... Should the bill have included same day registration?"

Sullivan: "Absolutely. We're a half century behind when it comes to the advancement of same day or Election Day voter registration. As secretary of state, I will ensure that we get it across the finish line."

Galvin: "Of course ... I've been working on it for years. The resistance of the legislature on the House side is well documented. [If] you ask the Senate conferees, they'll tell you where the problem was and they'll tell you of my support."

On whether the VOTE Act will change who votes

Galvin: "I think that it will make it easier for people to vote. We'll know better after this first cycle. We know that in 2020 it did."

Sullivan: "I believe it will help, but it doesn't go far enough. The disparities in those who vote by mail in communities of color versus their white counterparts are significant and well documented. If we want to increase voter participation in communities of color, we need Election Day registration."

On automatic voter registration

Sullivan: "We want to talk about automatic voter registration? The NAACP had to sue Bill Galvin, [a] civil rights organization, sue Bill Galvin for his failure to actively implement the National Voter Registration Act. This required a federal court to get involved. We're not talking about a champion of voting rights. We're talking about someone who is incredibly reactive to the detriment of the advancement of voting rights."

Galvin: "I implemented automatic voter registration. I proposed the law. I pushed the law. The NAACP had absolutely nothing to do with it. The activists involved in that were not involved with the NAACP; Common Cause and others were.

"Secondly, as far as the implementation of it, we have fully implemented it. The changes that are now being proposed would make it more difficult for people to withdraw their name should they choose to. That's a total misrepresentation of the facts."

Sullivan: "The law is very clear. Anyone can Google the fact that you have, in fact, been sued by the NAACP. And in response to that, you then participated in us [NAACP] helping to move forward automatic voter registration. But let the record be clear: After it was signed into law, you failed to implement automatic voter registration in accordance with the law. See, you like democracy your way. But this is not Burger King. This is the American democracy. And that is why we need a new secretary of state."

Galvin: "It's definitely not Burger King. You can't choose your facts and that's what you're doing. I implemented it. It's fully implemented. It's attested to by the tens of thousands of people that have registered that way. It's my office that's done it without any stimulation from the NAACP. Most of the lawsuits we've had have been frivolous, and we've won them all, including the ones from Trump and his friends."

On protections against voter fraud

Tiziana Dearing: "What is one area of fraud protection in the Massachusetts voting system that you would seek to shore up if elected?"

Sullivan: "We've got to do more to ensure that we are staying ahead of 'hacktivists' and those who wake up every morning seeking ways to disrupt our democracy...

"One of the things that we have to do is really ensure that here in Massachusetts, especially, that we are working with our cybersecurity experts to ensure that when it comes to casting ballots, that we've got safe and secure elections equipment. Massachusetts has some of the oldest elections equipment in the country, well documented by the Brennan Center multiple times. Yet we have failed to provide access to the resources needed in communities across Massachusetts to ensure that they can upgrade that equipment."

Galvin: "The last statement is the most egregious. I supported getting new equipment in a city like Lawrence that couldn't afford it and we paid for it. So that's a misstatement. Moreover, we don't have a cybersecurity problem because I've taken the precautions to prevent it. In fact, we're not on the internet. We are a paper-based system. I've insisted on paper ballots for all of these years and I'm very happy for it. Massachusetts voters can be confident that when they put that ballot into the box, it's going to be counted. It's a paper system that can be double checked. And I've insisted on that. And that's the hallmark of our system."

Tiziana Dearing: Is there nothing that should be digitized or brought forward to the internet that does not exist in that form?

Galvin: "What we would be digitizing would be record keeping, and that's where we need cybersecurity. That is to say the voter's IDs and personal information. The ballot itself, I think we should remain a paper based system, not simply because it's more secure. But also you have the ability, then, in a recount, to go back and actually build confidence... by actually seeing the cast ballots."

Sullivan: "What I believe is that the idea that we are OK and there's nothing more we can do is a problem. There are people today — this is this this is well documented — who wake up every day trying to find ways to disrupt our democracy and attack our elections. And so it is critically important that we have a secretary of state who doesn't think that we're fine and that good is good enough."

On public records and government transparency

Tiziana Dearing: "Secretary Galvin, the Boston Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld wrote the following line about you in a column last April: 'He hasn't exactly been aggressive in defending public records requests that get ignored from state agencies. But that's one of the most important duties of the secretary of the state.'"

Galvin: "Well, it's untrue. That's what it is. The fact of the matter is I'm the only one who's worked to change the law to make it more powerful and have been successful. If you look at the response rate of our decisions on public records on our website, you'll see the dramatic improvement that's been made since the 2017 law that I supported and authored in many ways.

"Secondly, I've continued to propose changes, especially in the rights of the governor. We have a very bad situation here where the governor, the legislature and the judiciary have exempted themselves in the public records law ..."

Sullivan: "Massachusetts is the least transparent state in the country. And we have a chief public information officer who has done nothing to help increase transparency."

Tiziana Dearing: Name one legal or public policy case that you've tracked or participated in in your role at the Boston branch of the NAACP that you feel would have turned out differently had the public records law been different. And what did you do about it?

Sullivan: "I'm going to go back to the NAACP case filed against Galvin ... having to do with voting rights and voter registration. Had we been able to readily access information relative to the registration of voters, we would not have had to use our volunteer resources to fight Bill Galvin in his lack of transparency. Bill Galvin's inability to effectively ensure that the national federal elections law was followed, his inability to ensure that some of the most vulnerable people in our commonwealth actually were able to register to vote led to countless numbers of people who were denied access to the ballot box."

Galvin: "First of all, the statements about the lawsuit are untrue. We won the lawsuit. The lawsuit was dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Court. So I think that's a very important point. You've neglected to say that."

Sullivan: "You're confusing cases."

On getting the other branches of government to comply with the public records law

Tiziana Dearing: "Do you agree that it's imperative [that the legislature be accountable to public record laws]. And if so, how to proceed, given your pessimism that you can get that through with? 

Galvin: "The fact that the legislature has not moved is further evidence of their own intransigence on the issue of public records. They have refused to make their records public. I disagree with that. I have clearly and unambiguously called for it to be a public record. I also think the judiciary, which, once again, has protected its own records in the same way, should be public. I have tried to change this for many, many years ... The aggressive actions of my supervisor of public records have made some changes. I mentioned earlier the ability to get attorneys fees has made a big difference. And I'm hopeful that, that combined with other legislative action, will improve the situation."

Sullivan: "He's been in office for over a quarter of a century. The fact that we remain the least transparent [state], there's got to be some responsibility taken by the secretary on that front. But even if it's not about the legislature, the question is what is the secretary of state's office doing? This office is notorious for being a black box."

On transparency of historic tax credits

Sullivan: "Nobody knows what goes on with the allocation of historic tax credits. Millions of dollars allocated to some of his donors ... What what does that process look like?"

Galvin: "In fact, all of our awards are on our website and the process by which they're given is on the website. They're in rounds because it's a limited amount of money that we give out. We prioritize, under the Department of Revenue regulations, communities that do not receive much. We prioritize housing. It's a very transparent process. It's a very effective process. And it's been proven by the amount of housing units we have helped build throughout Massachusetts and the amount of commercial activity we've generated in poorer cities throughout Massachusetts. It's very available."

Sullivan: "That's not the experience of the veterans in your own backyard who could not get affordable housing projects built because you objected to them. The fact of the matter is, when it comes to your office, it is a black box."

"We don't even know who's working in your office. CommonWealth Magazine has tried for years to find out the diversity numbers of your staff. You have been unable to share even that level of information with the public. The secretary of state's office must lead from the front and become the most transparent constitutional office here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts."

On the census

Tiziana Dearing: "A November 2021 report by the Urban Institute estimates that Black residents in Massachusetts were undercounted in 2020 by 2.71%, Hispanic residents by 2.18%, while white, non-Hispanic or non-Latinx residents were overcounted by about a half a percent. If elected secretary of the commonwealth, what could and would you do either to correct that problem or to help it?

Sullivan: "I was proactive in suing the Trump administration because we knew that they were not going to be prepared for our census. The secretary of state's office here in Massachusetts must be more proactive in addressing the persistent low undercounts that we see across Massachusetts.

"It is unacceptable for any community to be undercounted. And the fact that we know today that there are certain communities that experience these undercounts decades after decades — as secretary of state, I am going to not just start working on the census 10 years from now, but I am going to start, day one, working to build those relationships and restore confidence in our government that will really help to inspire and motivate people to want to participate in the census ..."

Galvin: "The census of 2020 was a tremendous success for Massachusetts. For the first time, we exceeded seven million counted residents, exceeding all expectations. But more significantly, we actually counted communities, many of which were poor communities, such as Chelsea and Lawrence, up to the actual amount of people they had there."

"She's mentioned the Chelsea Collaborative several times. We gave money to the Chelsea Collaborative and many other groups throughout Massachusetts. It was a grassroots effort led by me. It was phenomenally successful."

On the effects of the redistricting

Tiziana Dearing: "Secretary, you expressed concerns that the Massachusetts legislature used an approach to redistricting in 2021 that... chopped some local precincts into kind of little pieces that were impractical in terms of stewarding clear, easy voting, because, for example, neighbors might literally have different ballots to fill out at the same polling places. Fast forward, we're four weeks away from a primary in which you are running and three months from the general. Are your concerns panning out and how have you handled it in your office?"

Galvin: "They're still very real ... We have tried to work on some precincts that are more defined. We work closely with local communities. We've even passed subsequent legislation to do that.

"I certainly think Cambridge and many other communities were badly treated in the census for pure political reason. I spoke up courageously and being being outraged at what they were doing. That's my way. I speak up honestly when I see something that's happening that's bad. I spoke out at that time. The legislature was not going to be deterred in splitting these communities. We're now trying to make the best of it with the time we have."

Sullivan: "The fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, what people care about is that they have a ballot in their hands that they can trust. And today there are voters in Cambridge and in Concord and perhaps other places around the commonwealth who do not have accurate ballots. That is the responsibility  of the chief elections officer to ensure that folks get accurate ballots. That is an election security issue. That is an election integrity issue. And right now, the secretary of the commonwealth's office is failing in ensuring that that happens."

Closing statements

Sullivan: "Our democracy has evolved over the last 27 years. And I'm running for this office because this is, quite frankly, a different moment for Massachusetts. Voting rights, transparency, reproductive freedom — these are the fights of our times. And Bill Galvin has spent 27 years fighting against them.

"Imagine a secretary of state in Massachusetts who's a partner with the voting rights and civil rights communities; a secretary who is able to deliver on Election Day registration; a secretary who sees herself as a chief democracy officer centering economic opportunity and support for small businesses. As secretary of state, I will look for ways this office can protect reproductive freedom and will be relentless in making sure that our government is transparent."

"Most importantly, as secretary of state, you'll never have to question whose side I'm on. I'll be on yours. I will always be on the side of the people, where I have been since the start of my career."

Galvin: "I'm very proud of my record. I have been a champion of voting rights as is proven by the results. You can't fight the facts and you can't fight the numbers. In Massachusetts, we have the access to the polls that most of the states don't have. We've had the turnouts that most other states haven't had. I've been nationally recognized as running a model of elections.

"But beyond elections, I've also led in many other ways, too: financial services. Once again, we've led the nation in protecting our investors, protecting our people and showing the way to other states in turbulent financial times — when people, for instance, are seeing declining interest rates in their bank accounts, but at the same time increasing interest rates on their credit cards. I've spoken out. I've taken affirmative action to make sure that doesn't happen.

"Most especially, I protected the rights of our vulnerable citizens such as victims of domestic violence. I've run a very effective program that has literally saved lives throughout Massachusetts. We are in challenging times. The next four years will be especially so. I want to continue my work and leave a legacy of success for Massachusetts."

This article was originally published on August 08, 2022.

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