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At City Hall, voters hunt for ballot drop boxes while others hit the polls

Elena O'Malley dropped off her mail-in ballot at City Hall in Boston during the primary election on Tuesday,
Elena O'Malley dropped off her mail-in ballot at City Hall in Boston during the primary election on Tuesday,Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

With mail-in ballots playing an outsize role in this year’s primary elections, voting traditions have been upended everywhere, and it led to some confusion in Boston on Tuesday.

Dozens of puzzled voters looking to drop off mail-in ballots wandered over to City Hall during the lunch hour looking for a sign, an arrow, anything to lead them in the right location. The confused voters were easy to spot, clutching large ballot envelopes and wearing bewildered expressions.

Alex Ginman, 35, of South Boston, carried his and his wife’s mail-in ballots as he scouted for a drop box to leave them in. “It’s not as easy as you think,” he said, after earlier getting rejected while trying to deliver them closer to home.

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He then circled City Hall in search of parking. “It’s kind of a pain,” Ginman said.

He and most others eventually found the designated drop off location outside City Hall — down a driveway, into a dark, dingy corner and behind a back door. There were no signs, until voters got inside.

Election workers inside the voting precinct at City Hall wouldn’t take completed drop-off ballots. “We can’t process those,” a poll worker said. “We’re two different teams.”

To turn in their completed ballots, voters cycled downtown in pairs, dashed over during lunch breaks and got dropped at the curb for a sprint to deposit their votes. Many relied on the directions volunteered by a woman stationed outside the precinct and working for Rock the Vote’s “Vote Tripling,” effort.

Jasper Ryan was one of them. The 26-year-old said he drove two hours from Northampton, where he recently moved, to cast his ballot. He had also tried earlier to drop it off at a location closer to his new home but was told he must take his ballot to City Hall.

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“I’m exercising what right I do have,” he said. ⁦

A second City Hall drop-off ballot box was located 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 over one of the guard’s right shoulder.

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.”

Later Tuesday, the Boston Election Department tweeted that it had added more signage to lead people to the drop boxes.

“Earlier this afternoon, we added more signage to make it easier to locate the mail-in ballot drop box on the first floor of City Hall,” the tweet said.

Elsewhere across the state Tuesday, municipal officials said things were going reasonably well.

Nancy J. Talbot, the town clerk in Ware and president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association, said via e-mail late Tuesday morning that she wasn’t aware of any issues at polling locations, “but as you know the day is early.”

Talbot said there have been over 1,400 early voting, mail-in ballots in her town of about 6,700 registered voters.

“Steady turnout, not really heavy,” she wrote around 11:30 a.m.

Things were also apparently running smoothly in Quincy, where the city clerk, Nicole L. Crispo, said shortly before 1 p.m. via e-mail that she wasn’t aware of any issues.

Lee Giannetti, a spokesman for the city of Cambridge, said just before 2 p.m. that things had so far been “uneventful” there.

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“The biggest issue has been people showing up to the polls with the ballots that they were mailed and wanting to vote in person instead. In these cases, our Election Commission staff have been cancelling the mailed ballot (so individuals won’t be able to vote twice) and then letting the people vote at the polls,” Giannetti said via email.

Kristina Mensik, a spokeswoman for Common Cause Massachusetts, a non-profit state government watchdog that monitors elections, said she’s heard a similar refrain Tuesday.

“The primary issue I’m hearing about is confusion over returning mail ballots on Election Day, and options around voting in person once you’ve received or mailed a ballot,” Mensik said in an e-mail message. “Many voters thought they could bring their mail ballot to their polling location, and are confused when they’re directed to vote there in person, or return the ballot to town/city hall instead.”

Mensik also said she’s had dozens of reports “of folks who received the wrong ballot in the mail or received their ballots late, and were left today confused about options.”

In New Bedford, Assistant Election Commissioner Sherrie Silva said late Tuesday afternoon that the city has received some calls from voters wondering if they can drop off their mail-in ballots at a polling location.

“We haven’t had many,” Silva said. “They took advantage of the situation with the mail-in [period] the week before.” Silva said of the effort to avoid crowding at the polls by allowing mail-in ballots, “it did work.”

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In Malden, City Clerk Gregory Lucey said via email that some people wanted to drop off mail-in ballots Tuesday, though “not as many as I thought there could be. It is interesting the volume of people dropping their mail-in ballots to us at [City Hall].” About 150 such ballots had been brought to City Hall as of Tuesday afternoon, Lucey said.

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.”

Prior to polls opening Tuesday, about 927,000 voters had already cast ballots in the Massachusetts primary by mail.

By late Monday, roughly 827,000 Democratic and 96,000 Republicans ballots had been cast, according to state data, and Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he expected between 1.2 million and 1.3 million residents alone to vote in the Democratic primary. Another 150,000 were expected in the GOP race, he said.

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In Boston Tuesday, some voters took to Twitter to discuss snafus they had encountered.

“My husband & I both mailed in our ballots, but the elections website is only showing his as received,” the person tweeted in response to a message about primary voting from the city’s official Twitter feed. “Should I go to my polling location to vote in person?”

The city tweeted back a response.

“Call @BostonElections at 617-635-8683,” the city wrote. “They can check to see if your ballot was received, and let you know what to do next.”

Another tweeter said more ballot boxes were needed, writing pithily, “More. Ballot. Boxes. Needed. By. November.”

As of noon Tuesday, the city said, 53,818 registered voters in Boston had cast their ballots.

The Boston Election Department said via Twitter that the tally “includes ballots counted so far from in-person voting on Election Day, the early voting period, and mail-in voting.”

One guy wasn’t impressed.

“[T]hose are rookie numbers!!,” he tweeted in response. “Make your plan to vote.”

Matt Stout of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.