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In still-unsettled Fourth District race, Jesse Mermell leaves door open to a recount request

Jake Auchincloss and Jesse Mermell.
Jake Auchincloss and Jesse Mermell.Boston Globe

FRANKLIN — Trailing in a preliminary vote count, Jesse Mermell on Thursday did not rule out seeking a recount should she fall short to Jake Auchincloss as the Fourth Congressional District’s contentious Democratic primary stretched through another day.

Mermell, a former Brookline selectwoman, also raised doubts about the vote count itself, charging that there may be uncounted ballots beyond those that were tallied in three municipalities on Thursday under a court order.

She repeatedly declined early Thursday afternoon to specify in which towns or cities she believes there may be additional ballots left from Tuesday’s nine-way primary to succeed Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III. But she called the possibility of votes falling through the cracks “deeply concerning.”

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In a twist, the number of still-uncounted votes later grew. Secretary of State William F. Galvin dispatched members of his office to Franklin, where officials said there were 3,000 ballots that had to be counted — far more than the approximately 600 the town’s clerk had initially estimated.

State and local officials were huddled in a Franklin school gymnasium into Thursday night, combing through remaining ballots while Auchincloss held a roughly 1,400-vote lead, according to preliminary results.

“We’re focused on making sure every vote is counted, and discussion of anything beyond that would be incredibly premature,” Mermell said earlier Thursday outside Newton City Hall, where she donned a mask with the phrase “Vote” repeated 12 times on it.

“No one wants a recount, particularly in the middle of a pandemic when we all want to be focused on the important task of getting rid of Donald Trump in November,” she said. “But as we know all too well, it matters who’s representing us.”

A website, massrecount.org, was live as of Thursday afternoon, offering a way to sign a district-wide recount petition for the Fourth District primary. At the bottom of the site it said: “Paid for by the Committee to Elect Jesse Mermell.”

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Asked about the website, Mermell spokesman David Guarino acknowledged soliciting signatures, describing it as a move “out of an abundance of caution,” given the tight deadline to file a petition by Friday. He said no decision had been made as of Thursday afternoon “on requesting further counting.”

Mermell, however, had to first close enough of the gap to legally be able to force a district-wide recount, which requires the margin to be within 0.5 percent. A spokeswoman in Galvin’s office said it also does not have the legal authority to accept electronic signatures for recount petitions.

An unofficial tally updated Thursday by the Associated Press showed Auchincloss, a moderate Newton city councilor and Marine veteran, with 33,433 votes, putting him 1,377 ahead of Mermell, a progressive Brookline Democrat. Only Franklin had yet to publicly report its results by Thursday evening, when Auchincloss had a 1-point lead.

The new totals reflected 129 votes Mermell netted after Newton and Wellesley updated their own preliminary results Thursday. A judge had approved a petition from Galvin to allow officials in those two communities and Franklin to continue tallying what was initially estimated to be 1,450 uncounted votes from Tuesday’s primary.

In Wellesley, where officials tallied roughly 100 uncounted ballots, Mermell netted five votes, picking up 18 votes to Auchincloss’s 13.

In Newton, she netted 61 more, earning 222 additional votes and Auchincloss getting 161 more out of roughly 750 officials counted there. Newton’s city clerk said it also had 500 additional ballots that had been counted earlier, and were being added to its preliminary count.

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It’s in Franklin, however, where the calculus changed. The town clerk’s office initially told Galvin it had 600 ballots left to count, but state officials, fearing the estimate was “inconsistent” with the number of mail-in ballots residents had requested, arrived to perform an inventory. Officials ultimately identified more ballots across the town’s eight precincts, totaling roughly 3,000, said Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Galvin’s office.

Auchincloss had won each of the municipalities that border Franklin, and he was expected to perform well in the Norfolk County town, leaving it unclear how the extra ballots would reshape the margin between the two candidates.

“As the final votes are being counted, we as candidates must be conscientious in allowing Secretary Galvin to take the lead and ensure that the will of the voters is heard in the 4th Congressional District,” Auchincloss said in a statement Thursday night.

Given the primary’s heavily divided nine-way field, Mermell Thursday evening faced a steep climb to not only close the gap with Auchincloss, but to gain enough votes to potentially force a recount across the district’s 34 cities and towns.

Under state law, a campaign can file a petition by Friday, with at least 500 signatures, for a district-wide recount, but only if the margin between first and second place is within 0.5 percent.

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If the margin is larger, a campaign can also ask for more narrow recounts at the precinct or city ward levels, needing to file only 10 signatures with each request.

“We are focused on getting every vote counted today,” she said.

During the primary, Auchincloss was often on the defensive against his more progressive rivals, who sought to frame him as ill-suited for the solid-blue district after he was previously enrolled as a Republican and worked for the state GOP and Governor Charlie Baker’s 2014 campaign. (Auchincloss later re-enrolled as a Democrat after winning his Newton City Council seat in 2015.)

Mermell was, by far, Auchincloss’s most relentless critic, saying last month that the Newton Democrat was “someone who has been indefensibly out of step with this district time after time,” citing controversial past comments and social media posts.

She often used Auchincloss as a foil, framing the primary as a two-way race and him as someone who “does not represent our values.” On Thursday, she declined to say if she would support Auchincloss, should he be the nominee.

Auchincloss’s backing of Baker, an abortion-rights-supporting, socially liberal Republican, did not appear to be a check against him in the more moderate Bristol County communities that anchor the district’s southern end, said state Representative Patricia A. Haddad, a Somerset Democrat and Auchincloss supporter.

Preliminary results showed Auchincloss winning Fall River and all of its immediate neighbors. When Baker won reelection in 2018 by 33 points, he got 71 percent of the vote in Bristol County, a 42-point margin over his Democratic opponent.

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“People don’t go to the extremes” in this region, said Haddad, the Massachusetts House’s third-ranking Democrat.

“I very much reflect my district, which is progressive at times and conservative at times,” she said. “I just really thought [Auchincloss] was a good fit, for the whole district.”

Mermell carried the district’s wealthy northern suburbs, winning Brookline, Wellesley, Dover, Needham and Newton, preliminary results show.

She was bolstered by endorsements from some of the state’s highest-profile Democrats, including US Representative Ayanna Pressley and state Attorney General Maura Healey, and the consolidation of support from onetime candidates Dave Cavell of Brookline and Christopher Zannetos of Wellesley, who suspended their campaigns in August.

But she struggled to carve out enough support as the district stretched farther south. In Attleboro, Fall River, and Taunton — three of the district’s largest communities outside the Boston suburbs — Mermell finished fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively, unofficial results show.

Newton City Councilor Becky Walker Grossman placed third in the primary, with more than 26,000 votes, and Natalia Linos, a Brookline epidemiologist who entered the race only in May, finished fourth, preliminary results indicated.

Ihssane Leckey, a former Wall Street regulator from Brookline, and Alan Khazei, a cofounder of City Year and a Brookline resident, followed. Zannetos, Brookline attorney Ben Sigel, and Cavell rounded out the voting.

Julie Hall of Attleboro beat David Rosa in the district’s Republican primary, according to unofficial results. Whichever Democrat emerges will be heavily favored on Nov. 3 in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 24 points in the 2016 presidential election and Barack Obama by 16 points four years earlier.

Hall, an Air Force veteran and a former Attleboro city councilor, said in a statement Thursday that “whoever wins the Democratic Primary will arrogantly assume this seat is already won.”

“They will ignore the majority of voters who know that the free market is the only place that will help our economy recover from the COVID-19 shutdown, make health care affordable, and our economy greener,” Hall said.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.