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Crush of mail-in ballots caught officials flat-footed, leading to Election Night frustration in Boston

Debbie Alexander monitored the ballot drop box at the BCY on Paris Street in East Boston, where early voting was took place in Boston's Municipal Election on Sept. 4.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Boston teetered on the cusp of history Tuesday night, a city eagerly awaiting results as polls closed in one of the most consequential mayoral elections in a century.

And then the results just . . . did . . . not . . . come. The city Election Department’s antiquated website showed hardly any returns hour after hour despite a message promising tallies after the polls closed at 8 p.m., leaving campaigns flummoxed and everyone else guessing until the next morning.

Election officials blame a surge of 7,000 last minute mail-in and early vote ballots from drop boxes, alternatives that have gained popularity in the pandemic. That flood of ballots — double what officials expected — must be checked by hand by election workers at City Hall to ensure no one votes more than once.


As the results of California’s gubernatorial recall election streamed in quickly, Boston’s 14-hour delay in reporting results unleashed a flood of recriminations from voters, political volunteers, and the media. Campaigns, however, seemed somewhat confident in the outcome because they have their own unofficial systems for tracking vote tallies.

But it wasn’t until 10 a.m. Wednesday that the city published results showing that City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George had advanced to November’s final election. About 108,000 votes were cast.

Election officials defended the handling of the election, saying accuracy matters more than speed.

“How could [California Governor Gavin] Newsom declare victory at 8 [Pacific time]? Because it wasn’t close,” said Secretary of State William Galvin. “I could declare that Donald Trump lost Massachusetts at 8:01 because the election wasn’t close.”

City election officials said they are hamstrung by the rules. Early votes and mail-in ballots cannot be counted until Election Day, when they are delivered to their specific precinct and tallied. But ballots that arrive later on Election Day are counted at City Hall after polls close, officials said.


The state’s top election official, Galvin, noted that mail-in voting has been expanded and the Postal Service had promised faster delivery. Other steps could also be taken to make future elections more efficient.

“The idea is to get every ballot counted,” Galvin said. “We have to figure out how to do a better job.”

None of the candidates challenged the election result, nor did they criticize election officials. But the process left many people shaking their heads Wednesday.

Early voting has dramatically changed elections across the country. In Massachusetts prior to 2016, only 5 percent of ballots were cast by mail, according to Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at MIT. That figure soared to nearly 42 percent in 2020, when a record 3.6 million ballots were cast by mail.

Despite that surge, Massachusetts hasn’t changed its approach. It is among roughly a dozen states in the country that generally processes and counts mail-in ballots in each precinct rather than at a central hub, Stewart said.

That has forced elections workers to execute a carefully choreographed dance: mail-in and drop box ballots collected by the city are generally sent to each of the precincts and tabulated on machines there. On Election Night, when the votes are fully counted in a precinct, ballots and the key components of voting machines are driven under guard to City Hall.

Ballots are secured in the event of a recount and the results from each machine are uploaded by the Election Department. Then, they are published on the city’s website.


“Some people will call it a single point of failure,” Stewart said. “I call it more of a bottleneck.”

Other election watchers said the process is flawed but works.

“We as voters and residents of Boston can chill out and just know that democracy isn’t always immediate,” said associate professor of political science Erin O’Brien of the University of Massachusetts Boston. “It’s always better to get it right than get it fast.”

Boston political campaigns have an informal system that has long gathered unofficial results faster than the Election Department. Campaign dispatch volunteers known as “closers” to each of the city’s roughly polling places.

When all votes have been tallied in a precinct, an election worker prints a readout from a voting machine that shows the unofficial tally. Closers relay those numbers back to their candidate’s headquarters, where campaign officials compile data from across the city.

That’s how campaigns often determine winners long before results are tabulated by City Hall.

On Tuesday night at Essaibi George’s party in Dorchester, a campaign representative periodically updated the media there on the campaign’s internal tally while City Hall’s updates failed to arrive.

While the public waited, Essaibi George’s campaign numbers showed she had likely clinched one of the top two spots.

Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who currently leads the council, said slow vote results are worth the increase in voter participation.


“I would take the trade-off that it will be a little longer to tabulate the votes as long as we’re able to provide increased access for all voters,” said O’Malley. “That’s not to say we can’t look at making the process more efficient.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him @globeandrewryan. Elizabeth Koh can be reached at elizabeth.koh@globe.com. Follow her @elizabethrkoh. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.