Just after 9 a.m. Saturday, officials began stacking sealed boxes of ballots from the November election on dollies and rolling them into the second-floor lobby of Boston City Hall, as dozens of workers took their positions at 20 tables.
Officials and volunteers then began the tedious process of recounting 66,000-plus ballots by hand, in piles of 50, to determine the winner of the council’s fourth, and final, at-large seat, after an initial tally showed one candidate winning by only eight votes.
“We’re going to do this ward by ward, precinct by precinct,” Lauren F. Goldberg, a city-hired consultant who is overseeing the effort, told the election workers. “If you can look at the ballot and reasonably determine who the voter voted for, that’s the will of the voter.”
Julia Mejia and Alejandra St. Guillen, both community activists and first-time political candidates, requested the recount after the results from the Nov. 5 election showed Mejia winning by the tight margin.
The process, which will run throughout the weekend and possibly into Monday, is painstaking with one election worker reading out each ballot and another recording it. Each ballot includes votes for up to four candidates.
Volunteers and lawyers for both campaigns observed the process at each table as the election workers went through the ballots one by one. The tables were equipped with extra pens, rulers to guide them line by line, and rubber thumbs to finger through the paperwork. They stopped only for lunch, or to use the restroom.
By early Saturday evening, the workers had recounted seven of the city’s 22 wards.
Either Mejia or St. Guillen will be the first Latina elected to the council and will join incumbent at-large councilors Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi-George, and Michael Flaherty, who took the top three at-large slots by comfortable margins.
The recount punctuates a dramatic campaign that spiraled on election night, when St. Guillen conceded to Mejia, with the understanding that she was 200 votes behind, only to later be told the gap had narrowed to five votes. Election officials ultimately determined the difference was eight votes after counting provisional and overseas ballots.
Both campaigns gathered signatures from 50 voters in each of the city’s wards to trigger Saturday’s citywide recount.
Mejia said through a spokesman Saturday that, “we’re excited to witness democracy in action as we continue to demonstrate the power of the vote in every election.”
St. Guillen, who observed the beginning of the recount process, said she was glad to bring finality to the election and was thankful for the dozens of supporters who volunteered Saturday.
“Both campaigns want to make a better Boston, and that’s good for Boston, that’s good for democracy,” she said. “But there’s great relief that this will be decided.”
The last known recount occurred in 2001, when Felix D. Arroyo placed sixth for an at-large seat, only 33 votes behind Rob Consalvo. After the recount, he was 68 votes ahead of Consalvo, putting him in fifth place, and a year later he was appointed to the body, to fill the vacancy created when Francis “Mickey” Roache left to become Suffolk County register of deeds.
Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees elections, said his staff provided input for the city on the process and is monitoring the recount.
Galvin noted the complexity of recounting more than 66,000 ballots, each of which may have votes for multiple candidates.
“The math here, even though it’s simple math, can be problematic,” he said. “There are all types of little logistical pieces. This is labor intensive.”
Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University who researches elections and voting systems, said the final tally of votes is likely to change for a variety of reasons: A machine may not have recorded a vote properly, or provisional or mail-in ballots may have been overlooked or stuck together.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.