Massachusetts election officials rejected nearly 18,000 ballots from this month’s state primary, roughly half because they arrived too late, illustrating the pitfalls of hundreds of thousands of residents voting by mail for the first time.
The new data, released by the secretary of state’s office in response to a Globe request, come amid intense scrutiny of the Nov. 3 election, when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more people could vote in Massachusetts than during the Sept. 1 primary.
That anticipated load could further stress the state’s decentralized election system, though state officials and experts say the surge in rejected ballots in the primary doesn’t necessarily portend doom on Election Day, when the deadline for ballots to arrive is more forgiving.
The 17,872 ballots thrown out from the primary accounted for slightly less than 2 percent of the 1 million-plus cast early or by absentee. More than 1.7 million people voted in total.
Still, with roughly half of voters choosing to cast their ballot by mail amid the ever-present coronavirus pandemic, the raw rejection totals soared beyond that of recent elections, and were largely driven by tardy ballots or in some cases, voter error.
“It’s a very unfortunate statistic,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights. “It indicates that thousands of people were disenfranchised in the 2020 primary, and thousands more are at risk in the general election if we don’t improve our practices.”
Of those rejected, 8,419 ballots did not reach local election officials in time, and 3,029 were considered “failed delivery," either because the ballot was returned to the local election office by the Postal Service or the voter said they never received it.
Another 3,124 ballots were discarded because the mail-in ballot envelope voters had to sign either didn’t have a signature or was missing, state data show. About 1,100 ballots were rejected for unspecified “other” reasons.
Massachusetts was among dozens of states warned in late July by the Postal Service that ballots cast by mail for the November election could arrive late even if sent before the state’s legally imposed deadline. Any ballots in Massachusetts postmarked by Nov. 3 and received within three days — by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 — will be counted in the general election, while the September primary had tighter restrictions, requiring ballots to make it to elections officials by 8 p.m. on primary day.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he could only speculate if Postal Service delays fueled the more than 8,400 late-arriving ballots for the primary, but he called the number “regrettable.”
“Clearly, we’re emphasizing to people to get it in early” for November, he said.
The total of rejected votes was more than three times the number from the 2018 and 2016 general elections, when turnout bulged to 2.7 and 3.4 million, respectively. About 5,100 absentee ballots were discarded in each of those elections, accounting for 5.8 percent and 3.3 percent of all absentee ballots returned.
That the rejection rate was lower this year when far more people voted absentee was a good sign that “Massachusetts kind of figured it out,” said Charles Stewart III, an MIT political science professor who studies elections.
But those who show up for primaries are typically more seasoned voters, Stewart said, making it difficult to predict how many of those casting ballots in November, potentially for the first time under the state’s newly expanded rules, will fare.
“Problems with voting at this magnitude can be consequential," he said.
The state’s September primary was largely hailed as a success given that election sites, despite some hiccups, avoided the type of widespread delays in reporting results, long polling lines, or potential fraud that buffeted other states.
That rejections swelled, however, was unsurprising, if discouraging, to voting rights advocates. It also shows that Massachusetts is not immune to issues that beset other states, including key battleground arenas in the race between President Trump, who has repeatedly sought to undermine confidence in expanded mail-in voting, and former vice president Joe Biden.
For example, more than 530,000 mail-in ballots were rejected during primaries in nearly two dozen states, according to a Washington Post tally from August, and NPR tracked more than 550,000 rejections across 30 states in presidential primaries.
In Massachusetts, the share of rejections for the state primary was especially high in Boston, where 3,020 ballots of the 72,652 absentee and early ballots were thrown out.
At 4.2 percent, the city’s rejection rate was more than double the statewide average, and came after Lawyers for Civil Rights criticized the city for not establishing drop boxes for ballots in the Sept. 1 primary beyond City Hall, where voters were still greeted with confusion.
“Four percent is really significant,” said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “That means there’s a 1-in-25 chance your [absentee] ballot might not be counted. It’s substantial.”
The city has since said it’s planning to install 17 drop boxes around the city through Election Day, and establish 21 early voting locations.
Officials at the Boston Election Department did not return a request for comment Tuesday.
“Pretty much everybody is working under a new system: elections officials are, voters are," said Alex Psilakis, policy manager for the advocacy group MassVOTE. "I think there’s a lot of confusion on everybody’s side. Spending the next month and change to try to clarify that confusion is the most important thing.”
Conversely, in the Fourth Congressional District — where the Democratic primary was decided by just 2,000 votes and not until 53 hours after polls closed — rejected ballots did not appear to be an outsize issue despite the intense focus it took on late in the race.
Of more than 140,300 ballots cast early or by mail in the 34 towns and cities that encompass the district, a total of 1,690 ballots were discarded, and fewer than 700 were because they were late, a Globe analysis of state data found. Becky Walker Grossman, a Newton Democrat who finished third in the primary, had unsuccessfully sued the state to allow ballots postmarked by Sept. 1, and received as late as 10 days afterward, to be counted.
Outside Boston, Cambridge had the next highest number of rejected ballots at 1,367, making up nearly 5.6 percent of its absentee or early ballots.
But the figure includes 975 ballots thrown out because the residents — assumed to be fearful their mail-in ballot wouldn’t arrive in time — voted in person before the original ballot arrived to election officials by mail. Cambridge, in fact, accounted for more than than half of the 1,771 discarded ballots statewide in that category.
“People were concerned, and they wanted to make sure their votes were counted,” said Tanya L. Ford-Crump, executive director of Cambridge’s election commission. “I can’t imagine how it’s going to work out for the upcoming election.”