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Hundreds of Mass. voters, or more, received mail-in ballots with the wrong deadlines

It’s unclear how many instruction sheets left over from the September primary were sent

Secretary of State William Galvin's office said clerks in at least six towns mistakenly sent ballot instructions left over from the September primary along with general election ballots, incorrectly informing voters ballots for the Nov. 3 election were due back in September.
Secretary of State William Galvin's office said clerks in at least six towns mistakenly sent ballot instructions left over from the September primary along with general election ballots, incorrectly informing voters ballots for the Nov. 3 election were due back in September.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Hundreds or perhaps even thousands of Massachusetts voters received mail-in ballots for the November election with instructions wrongly telling them their votes are due by Sept. 1, the date of the since-passed state primary, officials said Thursday.

An official in Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office said the agency is aware of at least six municipalities where voters received erroneous directions with their ballots, the bulk of which began arriving in voters' homes this week.

More than 1.6 million voters have so far requested to vote by mail amid the pandemic.

Mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election must be postmarked by Election Day and received by the city or town by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6 to count.

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Several local election officials said they mistakenly included copies of instructions from the primary with ballots this week, unaware that they featured the September deadline. Typically, absentee ballot instructions do not include any date, only the mandate that they be returned by the close of the polls, several officials said. That has often allowed clerks to repurpose any extra copies from past elections.

The instructions changed, however, under the state’s newly expanded voting law, which allowed any one of the state’s 4.66 million registered voters to request an absentee ballot for both elections. For the Sept. 1 election, ballots needed to be received by the date of the primary, a tighter deadline than for the general election.

That expansion of mail-in balloting has, in turn, inundated local clerks with thousands of requests and has prompted many to try to find ways to speed the process of creating packages of ballots and instructions this week.

“It kills me, because you try to do the best you can and something like this happens,” said Michael Palmer, the town clerk in Falmouth, where he believes a “couple hundred” of the roughly 11,000 mail-in ballots requested there went out with the wrong instructions.

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“We made it a lot easier for people to vote, but we didn’t fix the back end. I could use another 10 people stuffing envelopes,” Palmer said. “It’s an honest mistake, and we tried to correct it as quickly as possible.”

Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Galvin, said Thursday that her office has been notified of the mistake in ballots sent in Falmouth, Boxford, Dennis, Haverhill, Hopkinton, and Waltham. The ballots themselves are correct, she said, though she encouraged local officials to notify voters through social media or town-wide e-mail lists to avoid confusion and hopefully ensure the mistake does not deter anyone from voting.

“It’s obviously not ideal, but luckily it’s an obvious error,” she said.

The secretary of state’s office, however, also included a similar mistake on its own website. As of early Thursday afternoon, the site’s mobile version included a reminder about the Nov. 3 election, listing underneath a header for voting by mail: “Return your ballot by 8 pm, Sept. 1″.

After the Globe inquired about the error, the office amended the language to reflect the site’s desktop version, which urges voters to apply for a mail-in ballot by Oct. 20.

Joseph Vizard, Waltham’s assistant city clerk, said the erroneous instructions went to voters in several wards, covering anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 ballots out of 14,600 ballots requested. Connor Degan, Hopkinton town’s clerk, said it likely was included in a few hundreds ballots in that town. And Linda L. Koutoulas, Haverhill’s city clerk, told The Eagle-Tribune this week that the error affected as many as 200 voters there.

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“All the supplies are usually identical, except for the ballots. That’s what threw us off and what threw off a few other clerks,” said Degan, who’s handling nearly 5,000 mail-in ballot requests in a town with about 12,700 registered voters.

In Waltham, officials sent a reverse 911 notification to residents, warning them to disregard the instructions if they received them and reminding them of the November deadlines.

“People are waiting for their ballots; they’re calling every day asking for their ballots,” Vizard said. The mistake was largely due, he said, to "clerks trying to get people their ballots and doing their best to cobble together what they could.”

The expansion of mail-in balloting has faced increasing scrutiny in Massachusetts and across the country, driven largely by President Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that it will spur widespread voter fraud. There’s been no evidence of that, according to an array of studies and officials, including the director of the FBI, who said in congressional testimony last month that he has seen no evidence of a “coordinated” fraud effort.

Dozens of states, including Massachusetts, have moved to allow more voters to use mail-in voting amid the pandemic.

“Now more than ever, voters need clear and reliable information on how to vote," said Quentin Palfrey, chairman of the Voter Protection Corps, a voting rights advocacy group. “This was very unfortunate error and the Secretary of State should take immediate steps to correct it so that voters are not confused.”

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The Sept. 1 state primary saw record turnout, and by most accounts it went smoothly, state officials have said. Galvin said he received no reports of potential fraud and there were few delays in reporting results, aside from the tightly fought Fourth Congressional District Democratic primary.

But between warnings that the Postal Service may not deliver ballots on time this November and the state’s ever-changing public health landscape, voters are being told to submit their ballots as soon as possible. They can track them online, and every municipality is expected to offer a secure drop box where voters can submit absentee ballots. Voters can also submit them at early voting locations.

Victoria McGrane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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