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On primary day, turnout may depend on location

How long you wait to vote Tuesday may depend on which community you live in.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Expecting lines at the polls on Tuesday? It may depend on where you live in the state.

It’s primary day in Massachusetts, and election officials and analysts – and candidates – are bracing for the unknown. Competitive local races, combined with contested congressional races and statewide contests for governor and secretary of state could drive voters to the polls.

Or not.

“It all depends on the elections in specific areas,” said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University, who specializes in the administration of elections.

There are several statewide races on the ballot, including contested nominations for governor in both parties, and a Democratic primary for secretary of state. But Ansolabehere and other analysts said the overall state turnout will hinge on voter interest in local races, including for Congress and the Legislature.


In Lowell, the elections commissioner said she is preparing for a respectable turnout, thanks in part to a 10-person Democratic primary for retiring US Representative Niki Tsgonas’ seat.

“There’s been a lot of energy,” said Lowell Elections Commissioner Eda Matchak, adding that the competition will (hopefully) increase turnout beyond the paltry 7.86 percent the city saw in the 2016 state primary. The city had a 13.37 percent turnout in the 2014 state primary, during a highly competitive race for the Democratic nominations for governor.

“A lot of the publicity in the area has been over the congressional race, I think that has brought out a lot of people,” said Matchak.

Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees elections – and faces a primary challenge from Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim on Tuesday – said he expects a comparable turnout to past elections.

In 2014, when Democrats battled for the nod for governor, turnout was 17.04 percent statewide – 566,092 votes in the Democratic primary, and 159,936 in the Republican primary. In 2016, with no statewide races, primary turnout was much lower — 8.84 percent.


Galvin would not make a prediction Friday, only saying turnout could creep toward the 2014 numbers, and that there is no way to tell whether independent voters — who can pick a ballot for any primary on Tuesday — have been excited by their choices.

But, he said, absentee ballots have been returned at impressive levels: there were 26,000 applications in 2014, and more than 40,000 for this election, he said.

“We have tried to do as much as we could to let people know about the date,” he said.

The primary’s timing — the day after Labor Day — has raised concerns about turnout, and Zakim has argued that the primary should have been held on a different day, citing low turnout in recent state primaries as reason to move it on the calendar.

But in the days leading up to the primary, city and town clerks, and commissioners also noted an uptick in the number of absentee ballots.

“The people who have been coming to our counter or coming in, everyone is saying ‘I’m still on vacation, or out of town,’ ” said Nicholas Salerno, the elections commissioner in Somerville, where the city’s former mayor, US Representative Michael E. Capuano, is facing a challenge from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley in the Seventh Congressional District, which also includes most of Boston.

Salerno estimates that he had received twice the number of absentee ballots as he usually gets by Friday’s deadline.


“Many people are doing absentee in advance,” he said.

Springfield Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola-Lopez said contested races, including US Representative Richard Neal’s challenge from attorney Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, have spurred renewed interest in the Democratic primary, with an increase in voter registrations and voters taking out absentee ballots.

“We’re busy,” she said. And while she doesn’t expect voter turnout to rival that in presidential elections, the congressional race “has had a trickle-down effect on all of the other races,” she said.

Individual candidates have also done their part to remind voters to head to the polls on Sept. 4, Galvin said.

One of them was his challenger, Zakim, who handed out backpacks in Revere on Thursday, and then toured businesses in the North End with state Representative Aaron Michlewitz.

He introduced himself to the local pharmacy owner, the guys in the real estate office, the barber shop, and the woman at the dry cleaner’s office.

“When’s the election?” they all seemed to ask.

“Tuesday,” Zakim responded.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.