TUESDAY’S DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY for the 4th Congressional District seat dragged into Thursday with the outcome still uncertain, largely because of glitches in counting ballots related to the state’s expanded voting by mail.
Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss maintained a lead of roughly 1,500 votes over former Brookline selectwoman Jesse Mermell as communities continued to process ballots.
The Franklin clerk stored about 3,000 early ballots in a vault, then never delivered them to polling places for counting. In Newton, over 750 ballots were delivered in the mail or via drop box late on Election Day so they were not brought to the polling places in time. Wellesley had 50 ballots received after 7 p.m., less than an hour before the deadline, which were not counted that evening, according to a court complaint filed by Secretary of State William Galvin.
While these errors were the most noticeable because they delayed the outcome of a high-profile race, they were not unique. While Tuesday’s election largely went smoothly, with potentially record-high turnout, the introduction of expanded vote-by-mail and other pandemic-related challenges created lots of headaches for municipal officials and a not insignificant number of errors that affected voters and even denied some the ability to vote. These are all issues that election observers say must be addressed before the November general election.
“These issues that had come up might only be amplified for the general because turnout will be so much higher,” said Alex Psilakis, policy manager at the advocacy group MassVOTE. “It’s important we look at them now to understand them and do what we can to alleviate them.”
While Galvin sought a court order to get Wellesley, Newton, and Franklin to count all remaining ballots in the 4th Congressional District race, and all three towns continued their counts on Thursday, Mermell said she had heard about several other communities with more uncounted ballots, and she passed that information on to Galvin.
Another clerk in a community not in the 4th District told CommonWealth that a staffer was waiting outside the ballot drop box close to 8 p.m. on Tuesday to collect any final ballots, and a postal clerk walked up with 15 ballots at 7:55 p.m. Those ballots were being counted after Election Day.
Not all the problems were due to late-delivered ballots. In Bellingham, another 4th District town, results were not reported until noon on Wednesday. Town clerk Lawrence Sposato said because of the pandemic, Bellingham hired more inexperienced poll workers and one of those workers closed a tabulating machine without taking the final step of producing a tape with the results – so every ballot in the precinct had to be hand-counted.
In addition to issues with counting ballots, some voters had trouble receiving ballots.
CommonWealth reported earlier this week on one Boston resident temporarily working from Washington, DC, who requested a mail-in ballot but never received one.
Lawyers for Civil Rights received 76 complaints to its voter hotline from people who did not receive a ballot application, did not receive a ballot, or had trouble returning their ballot. The group’s executive director, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, said there are multiple voters who requested a mail-in ballot on time, but did not get it. “Many people called saying, I haven’t received anything, it’s already Election Day, what am I going to do if I don’t have the ballot?” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
A voter who did not receive their ballot in time could have voted in person, but Espinoza-Madrigal said some of those he spoke to were unable to get to the polls due to health concerns or mobility challenges.
Psilakis said there is no way to know how many people did not get ballots in time, but he estimated that it is in the hundreds.
Espinoza-Madrigal said there was also confusion over how to return mail-in ballots. While some towns provided drop-boxes at early voting locations, some voters mistakenly believed they could return a mail-in ballot at an Election Day polling place, which they could not. And if a voter waited too long to mail their ballot in, towns varied in how convenient their municipal drop-boxes were. Boston, for example, had just a single drop-box at City Hall.
In Boston, some voters who requested a mail-in ballot but then tried to vote in person were stuck waiting at their polling place. According to the Boston Election Commission, the Elections Department experienced high call volume from poll workers trying to verify that a voter who showed up in person had not already voted early. The Election Department ultimately called Galvin’s office and got permission to let these voters cast ballots without waiting on site for verification.
If someone already voted by mail, they would not be allowed to vote in person. If they did vote in person and their ballot showed up later in the day, the ballot would arrive at the polling place and be checked against a list, then not counted.
With the labor-intensive process of sending mail-in ballots to more than 1 million people, a few towns also made mailing mistakes.
In Brookline, according to news reports, the town sent the wrong ballots to at least 30 people.
In Medford, city clerk Adam Hurtubise said staff omitted including an envelope in 1,200 ballot mailings. The city sent out an apology letter along with a new envelope and made envelopes available at locations inside City Hall. “I apologized for that, it was a mistake we made that we have corrected,” Hurtubise said.
In New Bedford, election commissioner Manny DeBrito said staff did not realize that ballot kits received from the state did not include one of the return envelopes, and some ballots were mailed out before the problem was caught and corrected.
Mistakes could also occur at polling places. Two South Boston voters were given incorrect ballots during the early voting period. According to the Boston Election Commission, one re-cast a correct ballot on Election Day. The other was out of town, so the city counted only the part of their ballot that applied to the races in their ward and precinct.
Voters with disabilities also faced challenges. The Disability Law Center took Galvin to court over delays in providing an electronic ballot – a mail-in ballot that could be filled out on a computer using assistive devices by people with vision problems or who cannot use their hands.
While Galvin and the Disability Law Center reached an agreement, that occurred in late August, and voters had only three days to request an electronic ballot. Only 14 people in Massachusetts used an electronic ballot, and eight people applied but their requests were deemed incomplete. The Disability Law Center heard from one person who made multiple attempts to apply for the ballot, but their final one was eight minutes after the deadline, so it was rejected.
Tatum Prichard, litigation director for the Disability Law Center, said disabled voters can access assistive technology at a polling place, but many people with disabilities are at high-risk of COVID-19 and did not want to go to the polls. Prichard said between the delays in getting the ballot out and a lack of public information, the number of people who actually used it “is a drop in the bucket of people who could have used it, and that was a shame.”
Even in communities with no obvious glitches, clerks said the drain on employees is not sustainable for another election without changes. “Every clerk in the state is exhausted at this point,” said Joe Vizard, Waltham’s assistant city clerk. His staff worked 13 hours on the Saturday before the election to process early ballots. Vizard said Waltham hired a team of seven people to process ballot applications and mail out ballots, but it probably needs 20 people for the general election.
Vizard also noted that all the usual city clerk business – things like handling birth and death certificates, land documents, and public records requests – got delayed by two or three weeks. “We got to 40 percent turnout in Waltham, but at what cost?” he said.
Falmouth town clerk Michael Palmer said for a month and a half, he has been working seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day. Palmer said with mail-in voting leading to increased turnout, he believes it is here to stay. But he said more needs to be done on the back end to automate the process. “That made it very easy for people to vote,” he said, “but on the backside, we have to do something about processing these ballots and the process of getting them out to people.”