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Congressional candidate sues state, seeks to expand time for voters to submit primary ballots

Becky Walker Grossman.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

One of the Democrats seeking the Fourth Congressional District seat petitioned the state’s highest court Wednesday to expand the amount of time residents can submit ballots for the Sept. 1 primary, citing fears that delays and changes within the Postal Service could leave swaths of voters disenfranchised.

Becky Walker Grossman, a Newton city councilor, filed the lawsuit with the Supreme Judicial Court 13 days before voting ends for a slate of Massachusetts primaries, including her own eight-way, open Democratic race for the seat currently held by Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.

The 11th-hour challenge, which names Secretary of State William F. Galvin as the defendant, seeks to change parts of the six-week-old law state legislators passed to expand voting options amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, including allowing every one of the state’s 4.6 million registered voters to vote by mail.


Currently, voters are required to get their primary ballots to their local clerks by the close of the polls at 8 p.m. on Sept. 1, either by mailing them, delivering them in person, or leaving them at designated drop boxes.

Grossman is asking the court to instead allow any ballots that are postmarked by Sept. 1 and received within 10 days after that to be counted, arguing that the current law includes “unnecessary and unjustifiable deadlines in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis” that could affect tens of thousands of voters.

Keeping the current rules “does not merely threaten to eliminate untold numbers of voters’ rights to vote and have their votes counted, but it is virtually certain to do that,” according to the 44-page petition.

Shirley D. Grossman — the candidate’s grandmother-in-law and the mother of Steven Grossman, the former National Democratic Committee chair — is among the petitioners in the suit. The 98-year-old submitted an application to vote by mail on Aug. 1 but, according to the lawsuit, has yet to receive her ballot.


The petition has drawn resistance from Galvin, the state’s chief elections officer, who called it a “mistake” and likened it to political maneuvering from a candidate seeking attention. It also faces a tight clock: Sept. 1 is less than two weeks away, and mail-in voting is already underway across Massachusetts, where more than 160,000 ballots had been cast as of Tuesday.

The lawsuit adds to a flood of litigation this election season. As of Wednesday, more than 200 lawsuits in 43 states and Washington, D.C. had been filed over election practices in light of COVID-19, according to research from Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor.

They’ve come from Democrats and Republicans, including President Trump, whose campaign has filed lawsuits in New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Iowa over new or expanded voting procedures.

Many of the suits have targeted voting deadlines. Levitt said three suits failed in Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida, while 13 others are still in progress, including Trump’s suit contesting the extension of the deadline in Nevada.

“More of the litigation has been attempts to open up the system,” Levitt said. “The conditions on the ground have been changing and neither voters or campaigns can do anything about that. . . . This is a crazy election cycle where the goalposts have been moving.”


The drumbeat behind voting by mail took on even greater urgency this summer, following months of Trump repeatedly attacking its expansion, claiming, without evidence, that it would spur significant fraud.

The Postal Service told officials in Massachusetts and 45 other states last month that ballots cast by mail for the November election could arrive late, even if sent before the state-imposed deadlines. And the agency’s operations became embroiled in crisis after the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a top GOP donor, made a series of controversial cost-cutting moves, including eliminating overtime and decommissioning mail-sorting machines, which critics say left mail service across the country bogged down by delays.

DeJoy said Tuesday that he was halting some of the operational changes amid mounting pressure and a flurry of state litigation, including from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

“It seems crystal clear without an injunction there will be wholesale disenfranchisement of innumerable citizens,” Jeffrey Robbins, an attorney for Grossman’s campaign, said of the lawsuit.

“There is no harm” of giving voters more time to submit their ballot, he said. “There’s only upside.”

Galvin disagrees. The seven-term Democrat, who has overseen Massachusetts elections since 1995, said expanding the time allowed for ballots to arrive could complicate the state’s ability to comply with federal rules.

Federal law requires the state to make ballots available for military personnel and voters living overseas 45 days before the Nov. 3 election, or by Sept. 19. The state must also certify the results of the primary by the same day, a process that could be further strained should a race require a lengthy recount, as did the 10-Democrat primary in the Third Congressional District did in 2018, Galvin said.


“I understand she’s a candidate, and she wants to get some attention for herself,” Galvin said Tuesday after Grossman had announced she intended to file the lawsuit. “But she really would be playing right into the hands of those who would delay the election, playing into the Trump rhetoric . . . about the uncertainty of the process.

“Taking more days from the process is not helpful,” he added. “We’re certainly anxious for every voter to have their ballot cast. But I think the options we’ve given them are there, and I think the suit is ill-advised.”

Matt Stout can be reached at Follow him @mattpstout.