Metro

‘One-hundred nineteen votes, and I’d be in the US Congress right now?’ The story behind the 1996 recount in Mass.

William Delahunt (left) and Philip Johnston joined hands in front of Weymouth Town Hall during a press conference in 1996.
Michael Robinson-Chavez/Globe Staff/File
William Delahunt (left) and Philip Johnston joined hands in front of Weymouth Town Hall during a press conference in 1996.

His primary election had ended months earlier. Even the 10th Congressional District’s general election — in which, for a time, he was the Democratic nominee — had passed.

And still, Philip W. Johnston was in the Elections Division of the secretary of state’s office in early December 1996, poring over ballots from his primary loss to William D. Delahunt and musing over a race that would change Massachusetts elections forever.

“One-hundred nineteen votes, and I’d be in the US Congress right now?” Johnston said at the time, according to a Globe report. “Can you believe it?”

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Twenty-two years later and an hour’s drive north, many in the Third Congressional District are asking themselves the same question.

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There, in the heart of the Merrimack Valley, Lori Trahan and Dan Koh are separated by just 122 votes, prompting a hand recount of ballots in 37 cities and towns that began Thursday and is scheduled to continue through the weekend. After Thursday’s gas explosions, fires, and power outages in the region, officials said they would count ballots as planned in Andover and at a new location in Lawrence on Saturday.

The recount is expected to conclude by its Monday deadline, according to Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office.

The ballot-counting drama has conjured many a memory in the insular world of Massachusetts politics of the famous — and chaotic — 1996 race between Johnston and Delahunt.

After a three-way primary that also included Ian A. Bowles, Johnston emerged as the victor on primary night, topping Delahunt by 266 votes to be the party’s nominee to replace retiring Representative Gerry E. Studds.

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But Delahunt pushed for a recount, which again gave Johnston a win, this time by 181 votes.

Or so it seemed. Delahunt filed a challenge in Superior Court, charging that the punch-card system used in Weymouth failed to record votes for him. And then, weeks after the primary, a judge reversed the recount after reviewing 956 disputed ballots, handing Delahunt a win. The secretary of state ultimately determined the margin to be just 119 votes.

“The voting day back in ’96, it was a monsoon,” Delahunt recalled Friday. “The rain, there was no visibility. And the moisture affected the paper ballot that required it to be punched.”

So instead of perforated holes, in many cases, there were just dents, which registered as blanks when scanned by a machine. Inspectors were later able to read the dents and found enough of them in Delahunt’s favor to declare him the winner.

After the race, Galvin persuaded Massachusetts communities to adopt more modern techniques, such as optical scanner devices, and to abandon punch-card ballots — the same antiquated system used in Florida that came under scrutiny in the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election. It means the same problems that plagued that vote are nonexistent now.

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But both candidates recall it vividly.

“It becomes a legal matter. It’s not a political matter,” said Johnston, who at the time hired attorney Dennis Newman to oversee the recount for him. Newman is now serving in the same role for Trahan.

“The candidates are not out there giving speeches and going door to door” during a recount, Johnston said. “They’re just depending on the lawyers for their salvation. It was a very tense time.”

The day the court decision came down, then-first lady Hillary Clinton had arrived in Quincy to rally support for Johnston. Delahunt didn’t attend.

“Ironically, the motorcade traversed along Quincy Shore Drive when I was out jogging,” he said. “I smiled, saying, ‘Here I am,’ and then I headed over to my office. Then the call came.”

“It was very heart-wrenching,” Johnston said of the entire episode. “And it took a while to recover.”

And Johnston did. He later served as the state Democratic Party chairman. He said he talked to Koh last week, recounting (yes, pun intended) his experience of going through the process.

“[On] election night, you’ve either won or lost. In my case, I did both,” Johnston said with a laugh. “So whoever the loser is in the Third, I’m going to call them right away and tell them, ‘Hey, you will survive this.’ ”

Victoria McGrane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Reach Matt Stout at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout