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Mass. may have seen record-breaking turnout in Sept. 1 primary

Zanyah Zorseuille dropped off a ballot at the drop box outside Brockton City Hall.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Voter turnout in Massachusetts’ unusual, largely mail-in primary election Tuesday is on pace to be the highest in decades, according to Secretary of State William F. Galvin and unofficial results from the Associated Press.

Galvin said his office was still canvassing local clerks for results Wednesday, but the Democrat said it appeared Tuesday’s election set a new record for raw turnout in a state primary.

“It’s gone over 1.5 million, it’s going to be a record,” Galvin said in a phone interview, though he stressed he still didn’t have a firm number as of early Wednesday afternoon.

According to the Associated Press, there were 1,614,197 votes cast in the US Senate primary, including 1,360,320 in the Democratic primary and 253,877 in the Republican primary, as of 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday. With a registered voter pool of 4,666,299, that adds up to a turnout of 34.6 percent, and it could get even higher.

The previous record for the raw number of ballots cast in a state primary election was 1,551,644, set in 1990. At the time, that figure represented a 50 percent voter turnout rate, much higher than Tuesday’s 34 percent.


But even in percentage terms, Tuesday’s turnout was the highest in decades for a statewide primary, and blew away comparable races in 2016 and 2018, which saw turnout of 8 percent and 22 percent, respectively, according to the secretary of state’s office.

A spokeswoman for Galvin’s office on Wednesday cautioned that official turnout figures won’t be available until the election results are certified.

But voting rights groups argued Wednesday that the early results show that Massachusetts’ mail-in ballot system, which allowed any registered voter to cast a vote by mail, drove an increase in turnout. MassVOTE, an organization that advocated for expanded vote by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic, called for it to become permanent.


“Voter turnout in the September 1 Primary makes one thing abundantly clear — vote by mail should be here to stay,” MassVOTE executive director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford said in a statement. “As many as one million individuals — if not more — cast their ballots by mail. Due in great part to expanded mail voting, voter turnout in a state primary reached its highest level in decades. While multiple competitive elections certainly contributed to this increased turnout, one factor proved critical — all registered voters could safely, easily, and freely cast their ballots from home.”

The vote by mail system was not without challenges: Some voters who were unable to mail back their completed ballots in time were confused about how to return them in person, and there were scattered reports of voters receiving the wrong ballot or incomplete ballot packages.

As of late Monday, which was the latest such data was reported, more than 900,000 ballots had been cast either by mail or during the early voting period, according to Galvin’s office.

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her @cprignano. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.