A ballot drop box outside the Boston Public Library was set on fire early Sunday morning in an apparently deliberate act, according to state and city officials, who said the “attack” — a “disgrace to democracy” — likely left several ballots spoiled.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Sunday that he contacted US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office and that the FBI is investigating what Galvin called a “violent act.” He said he’s also urging local election officials around the state to increase security of their drop boxes, including employing police to monitor them, using video surveillance, and emptying the boxes frequently ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
The fire was set around 4 a.m. in the Copley Square drop box, according to Galvin’s office. Boston Police on Sunday released two images of a man they say they’re trying to identify as part of the investigation. In one image, a man appears to be holding something with a bright flame as he approaches the ballot box.
In a joint statement, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Galvin called the fire nine days before Election Day “a disgrace to democracy, a disrespect to the voters fulfilling their civic duty, and a crime.”
“Our first and foremost priority is maintaining the integrity of our elections process and ensuring transparency and trust with our voters, and any effort to undermine or tamper with that process must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” the statement said. “We ask voters not to be intimidated by this bad act, and remain committed to making their voices heard in this and every election.”
Lelling and Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the FBI Boston Division’s special agent in charge, confirmed in their own statement on Sunday night that federal authorities were investigating the “attempted ballot box arson.”
“For the next several weeks, it is a top priority of our offices to help maintain the integrity of the election process in Massachusetts by aggressively enforcing federal election laws,” the officials said, urging the public to report any “suspicious, election-related activity” to their offices.
“Voters in Massachusetts can feel confident in the success of the information-sharing protocols that we have established with our local, state, and federal election security partners in advance of the 2020 election."
Galvin, in a message left with a Globe reporter, said “this was a deliberate arson attack on a ballot box in a federal election.”
There were 122 ballots inside the box when officials emptied it Sunday morning, 87 of which were legible and able to be processed. Galvin said in a phone interview that of the remaining 35, most “probably could be read,” meaning they could possibly be saved, but that five to 10 were “badly damaged” and unreadable. The box had last been emptied by the Boston Elections Department just before 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Officials are urging voters who used the box late Saturday or early Sunday to either track their ballot online or contact the Boston Elections Department.
Any affected voters will have a replacement ballot mailed to them by the City of Boston and will have the option of casting that replacement ballot or voting in person, Galvin’s office said. If any affected voter does not submit a new ballot, their original ballot will be hand-counted to the extent possible.
The drop box outside the Copley Square library did not suffer “physical outer damage,” according to city officials, who say it is still available for voters to deposit their completed ballots. Boston police said when they arrived early Sunday, smoke was coming out of the ballot box and that it “appeared to be on fire."
Fire crews eventually extinguished it by filling the ballot box with water, police said. Galvin said the plastic liner inside the box was melted by the heat.
Walsh’s office said each of the city’s 17 drop boxes are under 24-hour surveillance and are emptied daily.
Galvin is pressing local officials, including in Boston, to better protect boxes, including emptying them more than once a day. He said he was especially concerned about the location of Boston’s boxes, most of which have been placed outside city library branches.
He also told officials around the state to consider keeping boxes inside municipal buildings or the lobby of police stations, though he acknowledged that many, if not most, city and town buildings aren’t open 24/7. A spokeswoman for Galvin said his office has told local election officials to contact the secretary of state’s Elections Division about the potential for funding to pay for any increased security, including for police.
“It’s better to be an inconvenience than to have ballots damaged or destroyed,” Galvin said. “This is a very intense part of the electoral process.”
Boston City Councilor Ed Flynn, whose district includes Copley Square, said Sunday he hopes the city can “implement additional safety measures” at city drop box and polling locations.
“We must do what we can to ensure the integrity of our elections process," he said in a statement. “I trust that we will find the perpetrator soon, and I want to urge our residents to continue to exercise their right to vote and participate in our democratic process.”
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll wrote on Twitter on Sunday that city officials there were using chemical fire suppressants in their ballot boxes “to ensure ballots don’t go up in flames."
"[It’s] sad that we have to take these measures,” Driscoll wrote.
In a phone interview, Driscoll said the city clerk, Ilene Simons, got the idea after contacting election officials in King County, Wash., where residents had been voting by mail before the pandemic.
Salem ultimately bought and installed in each of its five ballot boxes two Sterno-like fire suppressors, which are triggered by direct by contact with a flame and are typically used to put out cooking fires. Two-packs are listed for about $41 apiece at Home Depot. Salem also installed all but one of its ballot boxes outside city fire stations.
“Everyone is trying to keep everything vandalism proof,” Driscoll said.
Galvin’s office said what happened in Boston was the first report of apparent intentional damage to a drop box in Massachusetts. California officials said this week they were investigating an arson fire at a ballot box outside a public library in Baldwin Park, where someone dropped a flaming piece of newspaper into a box Sunday night.
The incident in Massachusetts comes as millions have already sought to vote ahead of the Nov. 3. election. As of Sunday, more than 1.6 million people had returned ballots, 1,031,264 of whom had done so by mail, according to Galvin’s office.
In all, more than 2.2 million have early applied to vote by mail or have voted during the state’s early voting period, which runs through Friday.
Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.