Secretary of the Commonwealth shames independents (but should instead be ashamed of himself)


In the year of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two most unpopular major party presidential nominees ever, it’s easy for voters to see the appeal of third-party candidates. That phenomenon should be mocked and disregarded though, according to Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, the very state official tasked with overseeing elections.

At a Massachusetts delegation breakfast at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month, Galvin warned voters not to “waste their vote” on third parties. “The only thing a protest vote is going to bring about is a result you don’t want,” he told the partisans in the room.

“As the incumbent Secretary of the Commonwealth for 22 years, you’d be nuts to think he’d say otherwise,” says James O’Keefe, captain of the Massachusetts Pirate Party. “[T]hat’s the thing about our one-party system in Massachusetts; if you’re in the controlling party, life is good, and you want to keep it that way.”

O’Keefe added: “Our legislature is 80 percent Democratic, yet only 35 percent of Massachusetts voters are registered Democrats. [Unenrolled voters] are Massachusetts’s largest voter demographic, and make up 53 percent of the electorate. These independents … are the very people that third parties are trying to appeal to. Massachusetts Democrats would be nothing without independent voters, and we’re not surprised that Secretary Galvin would want to discourage these independents from considering other options.”

But there’s another reason why it’s unsurprising that a party hack like Galvin would fear third parties: He has less than nothing to show for his two decades as the state’s number-three politician.

One of Galvin’s biggest responsibilities is ensuring that local and state government agencies across the Commonwealth are transparent to the public. The Public Records Division, headed by Galvin appointee Shawn Williams, hears appeals from people who are denied public records and is supposed to assist them with accessing requested information.

But under Galvin, the Public Records Division has been little more than a joke among journalists and others who regularly make records requests. Even simple appeals often take weeks or months to resolve, and the results of appeals often seem arbitrary. Galvin’s office also typically refuses to work with the attorney general’s office, which has the power to sue and file criminal charges against officials who break the public records law. That means officials can get off the hook simply by refusing to comply with orders from Galvin’s office.

For their role in this fiasco, Galvin and Shawn Williams were finalists for this year’s Golden Padlock “Award” from the group Investigators Reporters & Editors, a distinction reserved for the most secretive government officials and agencies in the country. According to IRE, the two were nominated for “supporting the withholding of a wide range of public records including race and ethnicity data and a recording of a public official making derogatory comments about two women at a public meeting. In one case, Williams upheld a $6,600 fee to complete a Boston Globe request for a log of public requests received by the State Police, saying it was ‘reasonable’ for state officials to spend 265 hours reviewing the log before release. The Globe has challenged Williams’ decisions through the courts and has won five times — an expensive and time-consuming process that has dramatically delayed release of vital public records.”

In his last election bid, Galvin’s two challengers criticized his poisonous influence on public records access, but not too many people heard their cries. In practice, Galvin’s main strategy for winning elections is apparently limited to having a D beside his name and avoiding attention. Republican candidate Dave D’Arcangelo and Green-Rainbow candidate Danny Factor struggled just to get a public forum with Galvin, and in the end were only given one debate — at Malden High School. The questions were all posed by students, and it wasn’t even televised. (The Lowell Sun shot a low-quality video of the debate, but it has fewer than 300 views as of this writing.) Galvin won that election handily, with 67.5 percent of the vote.

Had more people seen the Malden High debate, they would have seen why Galvin fears third parties. The most radical public records reform was suggested by Danny Factor, who said that information should be available online within seven days of a request and should not cost any money. “Remember that you are the government. The government is the people. These are your records. These are things that you may want to find out about to create better policies in the state, and you deserve them,” he said.

O’Keefe of the Pirate Party has similar thoughts: “Massachusetts needs the breath of fresh air that only third parties can provide … We need a government that automatically puts public records on the web, where the public can easily find and review them. We need a government that carries out the people’s business in sunlight, not behind closed doors.”

In contrast, when the Legislature recently passed a public records update bill, Galvin’s office spoke out against a number of modest reforms. For instance, his office testified that government agencies should be allowed to charge fees even when they fail to respond to records requests on time. Galvin’s office also criticized a provision that would require it to alert the attorney general’s office when an agency fails to follow an order to comply with a request — presumably because of Galvin’s lack of interest in working with the AGO to enforce the law.

It may be a little early to start thinking about the next Secretary of the Commonwealth election, but when the time comes, hopefully the press and public will pay close attention.

“Broken Records” is a biweekly column produced in partnership between the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, DigBoston, and the Bay State Examiner. Follow BINJ on Twitter @BINJreports for upcoming installments of Maya and Andrew’s ongoing reporting on public information.

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