Auchincloss leads Mermell, but count not final

Uncounted ballots delay results in 4th Congressional District

AS OF WEDNESDAY afternoon, Jake Auchincloss appeared to be edging out Jesse Mermell to win the Democratic nod for the 4th Congressional District seat, with just 1,500 votes separating them. But the race continued to drag into a second day amid lengthy delays in reporting results and municipal mistakes that left hundreds of ballots uncounted.

Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State William Galvin sought a court order requiring districts to continue their counts until all ballots received by 8 p.m. Tuesday were counted.

Auchincloss had 33,216 votes, or 22.4 percent of the vote, compared to 31,710 votes for Mermell, or 21.4 percent.

The counting delay has thrown into uncertainty the outcome of a seven-way scramble for a rare open congressional seat. The candidates are vying for the seat Rep. Joe Kennedy gave up to challenge Sen. Ed Markey. 

Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor who was a registered Republican in 2013 and 2014 while working on Charlie Baker’s campaign for governor, cut a more moderate profile and made big inroads in southern sections of the district, which reaches from Brookline and Newton all the way to Fall River. 

Mermell, a former Brookline select board member and top aide to Gov. Deval Patrick, embraced a more progressive agenda and rolled up big numbers in her hometown and neighboring Newton, where she beat Auchincloss and a second Newton candidate, City Councilor Becky Grossman.

As of 4 p.m., Franklin was the only town that still had not publicly reported any results. The town clerk there could not be reached.

But Galvin said although all the other towns’ unofficial results had been reported, several communities in the district still had uncounted ballots that were received on time, but not yet tallied. Galvin attributed the issue to “the volume of mail-in ballots and the last-minute arrival of many of those ballots.”

According to one campaign source, there were around 2,100 ballots still uncounted in the district, in Newton, Brookline, Milford, Franklin, and Wellesley.

A Milford spokesperson said the only ballots still being counted were those being processed by hand because the voting machine rejected them. Clerks in the other communities could not immediately be reached.

Galvin’s complaint, submitted to Suffolk Superior Court by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, said there were uncounted ballots in Newton, Franklin, and Wellesley.

According to the complaint, the Franklin clerk stored mail-in ballots in a vault so they could be delivered to polling places on primary day and counted – but the ballots were inadvertently not delivered and not counted.

In Newton, 751 ballots were left in a city drop box late on primary day, and the city was “unable” to get the ballots to the polling places for counting.

Wellesley had around 50 uncounted ballots mailed in from overseas military voters and another 50 ballots left in a municipal drop box after 7 p.m.

Because state law does not have any procedure in place to allow for counting ballots after Election Day, Galvin had to seek an emergency court order to ensure any outstanding ballots could be unsealed and counted in public view.

Earlier in the day, Mermell’s campaign manager, Katie Prisco-Buxbaum, had written to city and town clerks asking for more information about ballots that had yet to be counted, including provisional ballots and mail-in ballots that were received by mail or left in municipal drop-boxes close to the 8 p.m. deadline. “We think the answers to these questions are important before any campaign or media outlet declares a victor in this race,” she wrote.

Prisco-Buxbaum’s letter noted that there were reporting irregularities Tuesday night. For example, Needham initially said 90 percent of ballots were counted with just under 4,000 votes – but by midnight, Needham was reporting 11,000 ballots cast.

Prisco-Buxbaum praised Galvin for seeking to allow all the ballots to be counted. “Given the unprecedented nature of this election process, we believe it is incumbent on all communities to be clear about how many ballots are outstanding, including ballots that arrived as polls closed, so that we can have the utmost confidence in the end result,” she said.

Auchincloss’s campaign has been silent since a statement issued around 1 a.m. Wednesday expressing confidence in his victory. “While the results of our primary are being calculated, I encourage all voters and candidates to allow the process to comprehensively and lawfully unfold,” he said.

While this year saw an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots due to a change in state law meant to accommodate voters during the pandemic, not all the delays stemmed from mail-in voting.

In Bellingham, which only reported its results at noon Wednesday, town clerk Lawrence Sposato said the delay was due to a human error in operating a machine that required the clerk’s office to count one precinct’s ballots by hand. Sposato said because of the pandemic, Bellingham hired more inexperienced poll workers and one of those workers closed a tabulating machine without taking the final step of producing a tape with the results.

The post-Election Day delays were a fitting end to what has been a confusing race from the start, as candidates in what was at one point a nine-person race have tried to stand out in a campaign where door-to-door activities were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, said the race was always challenging for candidates with door-to-door campaigning suspended. And, he added, “Just the sheer number of candidates made it confusing for voters.”

Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said with additional problems caused by delayed mail and late-arriving ballots, voting is “going to strike people as a real exercise in frustration this year.” “Overall, to have such a close election come down to so few ballots in such a confusing situation is just bad,” he said.

There are just 63 days between the primary and general elections, and Galvin is required by federal law to mail general election ballots out to military personnel overseas by September 16. Galvin said before the primary he hoped the results would be “decisive,” so he could start preparing general election ballots.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

If the margin of victory is less than half of one percent of total votes cast, any candidate has until Friday to petition for a recount.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Julie Hall, who defeated David Rosa in the GOP primary. Hall, a former Attleboro city councilor and an advocate for veterans, spent more than 30 years in the US Air Force.