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In Mass. state party election, court declares winner more than 600 days after voters cast ballot

Secretary of State William F. Galvin.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

More than 600 days after voters cast their ballots, a state judge this week ordered Massachusetts’ secretary of state to certify a Republican activist as winning an intraparty election, offering a potential coda to a long, messy legal saga.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Debra A. Squires-Lee’s ruling Thursday that Nicaela Chinnaswamy be officially recognized as the winner of a Republican state committee race came after errors by Boston election workers marred the original results and, even when they were corrected in a recount a year later, state officials refused to re-certify them.

The winding legal drama began shortly after the March 2020 election, when Chinnaswamy and two others ran write-in campaigns for the Republican Party’s Second Suffolk committeewoman seat. But when the initial results showed none had met the threshold to be seated, a flurry of litigation from Chinnaswamy followed, and city officials agreed to hold a recount in March 2021, where they uncovered more than 160 votes that had been erroneously uncounted, including enough making Chinnaswamy the winner.

The fight has entangled the Massachusetts Republican Party, the City of Boston, and Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who has fought Chinnaswamy’s effort to be certified, arguing it would set a “terrible precedent” of allowing unsatisfied candidates to force a rehashing of election results so far after Election Day.

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Squires-Lee rejected that argument Thursday, saying that write-in votes in the Second Suffolk state committeewoman race were not accurately counted or recorded and that those errors changed the results. To then ignore that Chinnaswamy had, in fact, gotten the most votes for the Second Suffolk committeewoman seat “effectively disenfranchises every citizen of the Commonwealth and resident of the Second Suffolk District who voted for Chinnaswamy.”

“This is not a situation where unfounded challenges were brought to contest an election,” Squires-Lee wrote in her 23-page decision in Chinnaswamy’s April lawsuit against Galvin and Eneida Tavares, Boston’s election commissioner.

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“The election laws must be construed in all respects to give effect to the will of the voters of the Second Suffolk District and not to ignore their will. The Secretary’s refusal to certify Chinnaswamy as the winner, in the interest of ‘finality’ for its own sake, does not take precedence over accuracy, fairness, and effectuating the will of the voters.”

Republican State Committee members are elected every four years on the presidential primary ballot — with one man and one woman serving from each state Senate district — and together act as the 80-person governing body of the party, including by picking the party chairman every other year.

In March, almost exactly a year to the day of the election, a judge approved Chinnaswamy’s request that the city perform a recount. The city had first reported that she had received 25 votes, more than two other write-in candidates got but short of the 50-vote threshold needed to claim victory.

Then, 389 days after the March 3, 2020, vote, Boston’s election department reviewed the ballots, ultimately counting more than 100 additional votes than it originally had. The new total pushed Chinnaswamy’s count to 65 votes, ahead of write-in candidates Eleanor C. Greene, who received 50, and Rachel Kemp, who got 37.

How Boston election officials missed some votes is unclear. But the city’s counting machines, while able to recognize whether a voter selected the option to write in a candidate, don’t have the ability to record who the voter actually selected. Those ballots then must be read and counted separately in a follow-up hand count and recorded onto a write-in tally sheet, according to Squires-Lee order.

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But before the recount, the Massachusetts Republican Party — then faced with an inconclusive election — had months earlier held an internal caucus in which Greene was selected to fill the seat.

Galvin, the state’s top election official, said he would not recognize the new results of the election. The Brighton Democrat argued that Chinnaswamy had waited too long to press for the recount, even though, Squires-Lee wrote, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 “certainly impacted the ability” for officials to even conduct one.

After the Boston Elections Commission sent the new results to Galvin after the recount this year, Eneida Tavares, Boston’s election commissioner, told the secretary of state’s office that the commission does not have the authority to recertify the results. Under state law, local officials have to report the results of the election to Galvin’s within four days of the primary.

Squires-Lee said officials effectively created a “catch-22″ to argue against certifying Chinnaswamy, even though she had met an initial 30-day deadline to notify the city clerk of her intention to contest the election.

“Chinnaswamy cannot lose her rights for failure to comply with a non-existent deadline,” Squires-Lee said.

Chinnaswamy declined to comment through her attorney Friday. A spokeswoman for Galvin, who is preparing for Election Day next week, said Friday that he hadn’t a chance to review the decision yet and doesn’t expect to make a decision about a possible appeal until after Tuesday. Tavares did not respond to a request for comment.

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Whether Chinnaswamy will actually be put on the state committee remains to be seen, however. An attorney for the state Republican Party told the judge it would seat Chinnaswamy if the Secretary certified her as the winner, and Squires-Lee said she “assumes that any representations Mass GOP made to the Court were honest and forthright.”

But Galvin himself does not have the power to compel the party to act, and Jim Lyons, the party chairman, declined to comment in the spring whether he believes Chinnaswamy should hold the seat, citing the ongoing litigation.

Efforts to reach Lyons and a party spokesman Friday were not immediately successful.

“Regardless, if [the] Mass GOP refuses to seat Chinnaswamy following certification, Chinnaswamy’s saga will simply continue,” Squires-Lee said.


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