METHUEN — Madeline Varitimos, the 79-year-old chairwoman of the Methuen Board of Registrars of Voters, lifted her thick magnifying glass to inspect the ballot in question.
The ovals next to two congressional candidates were filled in, but one had an X through it.
“Because the X was so clear and definitive,” Varitimos said, the intent was to obliterate the vote for Dan Koh of Andover and cast the ballot for Lori Trahan of Lowell. Her colleagues agreed.
Such was the drama and routine at the beginning of a sprawling five-day ballot recount process in the Third Congressional District’s Democratic primary. Spanning 37 cities and towns, the recount has set out to tally by hand 89,000 ballots to determine a nominee who will move on to the Nov. 6 general election to face a Republican and an independent candidate.
In the primary’s original tally, Trahan, a former congressional chief of staff, topped a crowded field with 18,527 votes. But Koh, a former mayoral chief of staff in Boston who trailed her by 122 votes, gathered the necessary signatures to request each ballot in the district be counted by hand.
And on Thursday, Koh appeared to be attempting to further fan flames of doubt about the outcome.
First, some background: On Monday, Secretary of State William F. Galvin formally ordered a recount and also said he was taking control of the elections departments in Lowell and Lawrence, the Third Congressional District’s two largest cities. He cited staffing issues in Lawrence and said there had been administrative errors in how Lowell dealt with the Sept. 4. election, which also prompted him to initiate an investigation into the practices and procedures of the Lowell elections department.
Officials found a “significant number of precincts did not reconcile or had missing information,” Galvin wrote in a letter to Eda Matchak, Lowell’s director of elections. He also raised questions about how her office handled provisional and absentee ballots.
On Thursday, Koh’s campaign dispatched a letter to Galvin asking him hold off on recounting the ballots in Lowell — Trahan’s hometown and the municipality in which she received the most votes — until the secretary completed the investigation into what happened during the primary.
“We are gravely concerned about the credibility of the Lowell election result,” wrote Koh campaign lawyer Gerald A. McDonough. Lowell’s recount is set to begin Sunday at 9 a.m. at Lowell High School.
The legal epistle prompted a tart rebuke from Galvin, the longtime top elections official in Massachusetts.
“The recount is going ahead as scheduled,” he said in a statement. “The principal purpose of the recount is to examine the ballots. It is pretty obvious that the Koh campaign is trying to lay the groundwork for a challenge to the election and that they are not interested in counting the ballots. I have an obligation to the voters to ensure that all ballots are counted.”
Galvin said there is a presumption of regularity in the conduct of the election. “It is my intention to sort the ballots into blocks to be counted and complete the recount before Monday,” he affirmed.
One area of concern raised by the Koh campaign about Lowell was the high number of blanks in the race, instances in which voters were not counted as choosing any of the 10 Democratic candidates on the primary ballot or a write-in, even as they may have voted in other races.
“Blank ballots in the Third Congressional US House race constituted up to 26 percent of the total vote cast in certain precincts — an inexplicable result in an election in which that race was one of the most hotly contested primaries . . . and which sets the city apart from all the other municipalities in the Third Congressional District.”
Matchak, the Lowell elections director, did not reply to a voice mail seeking comment Thursday. A spokeswoman for the Trahan campaign, Gretchen Grosky, said: “We continue to have full confidence in the secretary of state to manage the recount process.”
Meanwhile, in Methuen, the first municipality to begin the slow and careful process of tallying each ballot by hand, the recount was underway in a third-floor room at City Hall.
As light streamed through the huge windows of Great Hall, volunteer tellers brought in by the city were seated at 10 folding tables — two tellers facing one another at each table — and counted each Democratic ballot slowly. (Rick Green, a Pepperell Republican and auto parts magnate, was the only Republican congressional candidate running in the district, and there will not be a recount of his votes.)
One teller looked at a ballot, determined for which congressional candidate the voter intended to vote, then said the name aloud (for example: “Koh”) and waited several seconds. Then the other teller tallied the result by pen.
The languid process was by design. Two observers from the Koh campaign and two observers from the Trahan campaign hovered over each table, watching with intensity. The extended counting gave them time to object to any determination they doubted, and flag down a campaign attorney.
The one protested ballot was judged and decided by the local Board of Registrars, sitting a few feet away. Rulings made by that board are binding and any appeal of its decisions will end up in state court.
With Koh’s Thursday letter, some observers think that is exactly where the fight for the Democratic nomination will end up.
The district leans Democratic and national Democrats and Republicans believe the Democratic nominee is likely to succeed US Representative Niki Tsongas, who is retiring.