Amid a global pandemic, Massachusetts voters seized the chance to vote under the state’s temporarily expanded voting law, which allowed universal voting by mail and early voting in the primary.
By late Monday, roughly 827,000 Democratic and 96,000 Republicans ballots had been cast, according to state data; mail-in ballots could be accepted if they arrived by 8 p.m. on Tuesday. Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Monday he expected that a majority of people who would be participating in the election had already voted.
The primary turnout was on track to be among the highest in recent years.
“We are seeing record-breaking participation in our elections in a year that we have vote by mail,” said Kristina Mensik, a spokeswoman for Common Cause Massachusetts, a nonprofit state government watchdog that monitors elections. In 2018, 981,568 people voted in the state primary elections, a number just slightly higher than the turnout this year before polling places even opened on Tuesday. In 2016, just 386,175 people voted in the primary elections. The turnout record for a state primary election in Massachusetts was in 1990, when 50 percent of the electorate, or roughly 1.5 million people, cast ballots.
This year, intense interest in the heated Senate race between Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III and Senator Edward J. Markey also likely helped drive Democrats to vote.
But Mensik said she didn’t think turnout “anything near what we’re seeing would be possible without vote by mail,” adding that the legislation, which only covers elections this fall, should be made permanent in the state.
Ballots were still being tallied Tuesday night, but by midnight, with about 80 percent of districts reporting, almost 1.1 million Democrats and roughly 200,000 Republican had voted in the Senate primary elections, according to the AP.
It may be days or weeks until it’s clear whether mail delays may have affected the final results, as late-arriving ballots that will not ultimately count trickle in. Galvin’s office said ballots that arrived late would be tallied for informational purposes, but they would not be opened.
Becky Grossman, a Democratic candidate in the seven-way race for Kennedy’s seat, filed a lawsuit in late August seeking to expand the deadline for mail-in ballots, citing fears that delays at the post office could disenfranchise voters. But the Supreme Judicial Court rejected those concerns, keeping in place the Sept. 1, 8 p.m. deadline for mail-in ballots.
The primary offered voters and election officials a chance to try out a major mail-in voting operation in advance of the presidential election in November.
A steady stream of people who had filled out mail-in ballots but not yet sent them in brought them to drop-boxes and election offices throughout the day Tuesday. Some said they had chosen the mail option because they didn’t want to risk coronavirus infection.
“We just chose it to be safe rather than sorry,” said Anita Lazar, 48, as she dropped off her ballot in a locked metal box outside Milton Town Hall.
Every 30 minutes, Susan Galvin, Milton’s town clerk, emptied the box, bringing the ballots inside to sort them by precinct and scan them.
“It’s been crazy,” said Galvin of the turnout, as she removed a stack of ballots to process.
At Boston City Hall, where the city’s only two drop boxes for mail-in ballots on Election Day were located, puzzled voters clutching envelopes wandered around the plaza, looking for the crucial box.
“It’s kind of a pain,” said Alex Ginman, 35, of South Boston, as he searched. (One box was located down a driveway, in a dark corner behind a back door; the other was in the lobby on the third floor).
Security guards at the front main entrance said they’d been directing and redirecting ballot-carrying voters all day long. A last-minute handwritten sign was taped to the glass behind one of the guards.
Scrawled in ballpoint ink on a ballot envelope, it said: “Hand In! Location! Go down the stairs (to the right). Hook left immediately. Door is on the right.”
Here’s the sign everyone’s looking for! @BostonGlobe #Election2020 Jasper Ryan, 26, drove 2hrs from Northampton to drop off his ballot with Markey as his choice for Senate. “I’m exercising what right I do have,” he said. @BostonGlobe #election2020 pic.twitter.com/PVR7G2kppe— Tonya Alanez (@talanez) September 1, 2020
Mensik said she’d heard a similar refrain Tuesday.
“The primary issue I’m hearing about is confusion over returning mail ballots on Election Day,” she said in an e-mail. Voters who received mailed ballots could return them by mail or deliver them to drop-boxes in early voting locations across the city. On Election Day, voters had to bring their mail ballots to their local election office — they could not be dropped off at polling locations.
Although the technicalities prompted some confusion, the ballot drop-offs didn’t seem to create much of a problem on Tuesday. At Boston English High School in Jamaica Plain in the afternoon, the poll warden said about 20 people had brought in mail ballots, only to be told they could not drop them off. Instead, they simply voted in person in the nearly empty lobby of the school, where the doors were open to keep air flowing. The polling officials “spoiled” their mail ballots so they were not double-counted.
City clerks and election officials across the state reported that voting was proceeding smoothly throughout the morning, with Lee Giannetti, a spokesman for the city of Cambridge, summing it up as “uneventful.” As of noon Tuesday, the city said 53,818 registered voters in Boston had cast their ballots.
Governor Charlie Baker was asked about the state’s preparedness for primary day during his regular press conference Tuesday in Boston.
Baker, a Republican who cast his Senate primary ballot for GOP hopeful Kevin O’Connor, said officials will likely “learn a few things here” that can be applied to the general election in November.
“I certainly anticipate that there will be guidance coming from the secretary of state’s office and frankly from a lot of local communities, to the voters in their communities, about what people learned during this process for the next one,” Baker said. “I think the way people set it up was pretty solid.”
Travis Andersen, Matt Stout, and Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report.