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Election officials nullify six absentee ballots after reports of coercion

Boston City Hall.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File

Boston election officials on Thursday took the unusual step of nullifying six absentee ballots submitted by elderly Chinese-speaking voters who reported that they were pressured into voting for candidates they don’t support by political operatives who knocked on their doors and collected their ballots.

Dion Irish, the city’s election commissioner, declined to say which operatives were reportedly exerting the pressure, but the Chinese Progressive Association and its political arm — which has endorsed District 2 City Council candidate Ed Flynn — blamed the reported mischief on veteran Chinatown operatives working for Flynn’s rival, Mike Kelley.

“It’s an outrageous violation of voters’ rights but, unfortunately, we’re not totally shocked because we’ve seen this type of thing happen before,” said Lydia Lowe, a board member of Chinese Progressive Political Action.


She said some of the operatives who were pressuring the voters also coerced Chinese-speaking voters to cast ballots for certain candidates when they showed up at polling stations in 2003.

Kelley’s campaign vigorously denied any involvement in the reported coercion.

“The Kelley campaign firmly denounces any form of vote manipulation,” Kelley’s campaign manager, Brian Sowyrda, said in a statement. “We set the highest standards for our campaign, and we are outraged at the baseless allegations by an organization supporting our opponent.”

Kelley, a former aide to the late mayor Thomas M. Menino, is locked in a heated battle with Flynn, the son of former mayor Raymond L. Flynn, for the council seat recently vacated by Bill Linehan.

The district also includes South Boston and the South End.

Lowe said the alleged “vote-farming” began about two weeks ago when seasoned Chinatown operatives who know Kelley from his time working for Menino went door to door for the candidate in at least 10 senior buildings in Chinatown.

After asking elderly residents to apply for absentee ballots, the Chinese-speaking operatives returned several days later and collected the blank ballots in their yellow return envelopes, which they asked the voters to sign.


About a half-dozen voters then complained to the Chinese Progressive Association, a neighborhood nonprofit, which reported the activity to the Boston Election Department.

The concerns prompted the Election Department to cancel the voters’ absentee ballots and allow them to vote in person Tuesday.

Irish also held a community meeting with about two dozen elderly residents in Chinatown on Thursday and sent a letter to all 300 Chinatown voters who have requested absentee ballots, warning them of the reported pressure and informing them of their rights.

As an added measure, the city will also hold off on processing absentee ballots from Chinatown until the end of the day Tuesday to give voters who had cast such ballots an opportunity to vote in person instead, if they choose.

“We want to make sure, particularly on Election Day, that voters are not harassed and are not overly pressured or influenced,” Irish said.

It is legal — and commonplace — for campaigns to give absentee ballot applications to voters and then collect the applications and return them to City Hall. But only voters themselves or members of their family or their household can return the actual ballots to City Hall.

Irish said that the city, despite taking action to nullify the six ballots, is not investigating who may have been exerting the pressure on the Chinatown voters.


“That’s not our role to do an investigation into that type of thing,” he said. “Our role is to make sure voters are receiving the correct information and are able to vote their choice.”

Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top election official, said his office is monitoring the issue, but has not launched an investigation because it has not received any complaints from the Boston Election Department.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said it is not his place to call for an investigation because the Election Department operates as an independent agency.

But, Walsh said, “We want anyone who has any type of concerns or complaints to notify the Election Department, and we’re going to take every concern and complaint seriously.”

Flynn said he was disturbed by the reported coercion.

“I’m extremely disappointed in what has happened,” he said at a campaign stop at a South Boston restaurant Thursday. “Every vote should be counted, and I’m glad the city of Boston is taking corrective action.”

The Kelley campaign also praised the city for acting to protect voters’ rights.

“We applaud the city of Boston Election Department for stepping in quickly and professionally to educate voters,” Sowyrda said. “Every voter in Boston deserves to cast their ballot freely and fairly in an election that is providing real choice.”

Michael Levenson
can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.