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By most accounts, the Massachusetts primary was a historic success. Now comes the hard part

Elections officials are girding for a crush of ballots in November.
Elections officials are girding for a crush of ballots in November.Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP

Faced with a historic number of voters, the Sept. 1 Massachusetts primary avoided the weeks-long delays that beset some New York elections. Officials said there is no apparent rash of potential fraud, as officials in Georgia are investigating. “Very positive” is how the state’s top elections officer described the experience.

It was also, in effect, a test run.

With less than eight weeks until the Nov. 3 general election, the scramble to distribute millions of vote-by-mail applications is beginning anew, and local clerks — some of whom struggled with the deluge of primary ballots — are girding for a turnout that could be double, if not more, than the record-setting 1.7 million ballots cast in the primary.

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That expected flood is partially the result of the newly expanded option to vote by mail, a route nearly 813,000, or roughly 47 percent of voters, took for the Sept. 1 primary, according to data provided by state officials. And about 1.4 million people have already requested mail-in ballots for the general election, and Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office expects that number to grow as additional mailings asking if voters want a ballot begin to go out.

“I think this will be the highest turnout in a Massachusetts election in the hundreds of years of its existence,” said state Senator Barry R. Finegold, cochairman of the Legislature’s elections committee. (Nearly 3.4 million voted in the 2016 presidential election, itself a record for the raw number of ballots.)

The Andover Democrat said his office hasn’t been notified of a “single case of fraud” from the primary. Galvin, too, said he’s not aware of any case of double voting, in which a voter had both a ballot cast by mail and in person counted.

“I think they should be commended for pulling this off,” Finegold said of local elections officials. “It’s going to be twice as hard next month.”

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The primary wasn’t without its problems and confusion. There were reports of some voters receiving other people’s applications or, as in Brookline, roughly 30 people receiving the wrong party’s ballot. Galvin also had to seek a court order to allow officials in three municipalities — Wellesley, Newton, and Franklin — more time to count outstanding ballots the day after the primary.

State officials then discovered thousands more uncounted ballots in Franklin than local officials initially had disclosed, prompting a marathon counting session after which results were released early Friday morning to waiting reporters and campaign volunteers, hand-written in a notebook.

Teresa Burr, Franklin’s town clerk, said in an e-mail Thursday she planned to do a “full debrief” with town leaders in the coming days.

The situation prompted Jesse Mermell, who finished second in the Fourth Congressional District Democratic primary, to question whether there were more ballots around the district that had gone uncounted and to lament what she called “some gaps in the process.”

Other important data also remain unknown a week and a half later. Concerns about rejected ballots have proliferated around the country as voters, many for the first time, tried voting by mail as delays ravaged the Postal Service and states were warned that votes could go uncounted.

Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Galvin’s office, said it has not yet been able to determine how many rejected ballots there were in the primary, in part because its information technology staff is busy constructing a state-mandated online portal by month’s end where people can request applications for mail-in ballots.

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O’Malley said getting an accurate count is also complicated because the state considers as “rejected” any mail-in ballots sent to people who instead voted in person. (A MassLive.com reporter, in fact, chronicled her experience doing just that, casting a vote Sept. 1 while her mail-in ballot remained uncounted.)

State officials intend to finish analyzing the data once the online portal is finished, O’Malley said. “We want our team to pull the detailed information, including reasons for rejection.”

Concerns that late-arriving mail could disenfranchise voters had swelled for weeks ahead of the primary, to the point that one congressional campaign unsuccessfully sued the state to allow ballots postmarked by Sept. 1, not just those that arrived before polls closed, to be counted.

“I received four ballots today. Where they were, I don’t know,” said Ware town clerk Nancy J. Talbot Thursday, nine days after polls closed. “I think people realize the convenience of [voting by mail]. But one of the things clerks are hoping for is that voters do not wait until the last minute” in November.

The state’s expanded voting law does offer more flexibility for the general election, where any ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received within three days — by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 — will be counted. State law also allows clerks to process mail-in ballots ahead of time, including verifying voters’ signatures and prepping them to be counted on Election Day.

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Nevertheless, efforts to smooth the process for November are already underway.

Galvin’s office and local clerks have huddled in virtual meetings since the primary, sharing advice on improvements as minute as the best technique for feeding ballots into machines. Talbot, who is also the president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association, is encouraging voters to use Galvin’s website to check their registration status or, once they vote, to track their ballot.

Finegold, the elections committee cochairman, said he is hoping more clerks’ offices can transition to using iPads to help speed the socially distanced process of checking voters into poll locations. His House counterpart, state Representative John J. Lawn, said he hopes officials can educate voters about returning ballots by hand to drop-boxes in towns and cities, something Galvin urged ahead of the primary.

Money remains both an issue and a source of uncertainty, given an impasse in Washington over additional federal aid to states. And whatever changes that officials do adopt ahead of November will almost certainly be administrative in nature only. State lawmakers are not actively weighing any legislative changes, given the short clock and a variety of other tasks they face, including passing an annual budget.

“We have so much on our plate,” Finegold said.

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The state’s voter rolls, after swelling to 4.66 million, are also likely to grow, Galvin said. President Trump and Joe Biden are scheduled to debate for the first time Sept. 29, offering what Galvin called a historic “trigger” for voter interest, and thus, new registrations.

“We have all these converging factors. It’s a challenge,” said Galvin. “I think our experience was very positive [in the primary]. It doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed a smooth experience in November.”


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