Someone set fire to a ballot drop box in Boston's Copley Square early Sunday morning, police said, prompting a search for the arson suspect, an FBI investigation and calls for increased security amid ongoing early voting in Massachusetts.
Thirty-five ballots were damaged, and up to 10 of those cannot be counted, according to Massachusetts' top elections official, Secretary of State William Galvin, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who urged people who used the box Saturday and early Sunday to contact them to get replacement ballots.
“We’re going to insist on prosecuting whoever did this and want them to know they’re going to be apprehended and go to jail,” Galvin said.
The FBI announced it was investigating after Galvin informed them of what appears to be a deliberate attack.
“What happened in the early hours of this morning to the ballot dropbox in Copley Square is a disgrace to democracy, a disrespect to the voters fulfilling their civic duty, and a crime," Galvin and Walsh said in a statement. "Our first and foremost priority is maintaining the integrity of our elections process and ensuring transparency and trust with our voters, and any effort to undermine or tamper with that process must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Galvin has also directed all local election officials around the commonwealth to increase security of drop boxes by employing drop box guards, utilizing video surveillance, and emptying drop boxes frequently.
“We had expressed previously our concern about drop boxes being in secure locations, I've intensified that this afternoon by issuing this directive: if it’s necessary to have police officers in front of drop boxes if they cannot be contained inside a building,” Galvin said.
Boston police say they responded to the area of 700 Boylston Street around 4:10 a.m. where the city's fire department was already on scene tending to smoke coming from the early voting ballot box outside of the Boston Public Library.
While the ballot box appeared to be on fire, firefighters were unable to determine if the fire was burning inside of the box, police said. Crews extinguished the fire by filling the ballot box with water.
The drop box had last been emptied by the Boston Elections Department at 2:29 p.m. on Saturday, the department said. According to their inventory, there were 122 ballots inside the drop box when it was emptied Sunday morning, 87 of which were legible and able to be processed.
Anyone who used the Copley Square drop box between 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and 4 a.m. on Sunday is urged to contact the Boston Elections Department immediately at 617-635-2211. They recommended using the website www.TrackMyBallotMA.com to see if your ballot was accepted.
Affected voters will be mailed a replacement ballot by the City of Boston and will have the option of casting that replacement ballot or voting in person until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
The ballot drop box at Copley Square did not suffer physical outer damage and continues to be available for voters to deposit their completed ballots.
“It’s really important that everyone gets a chance to put their ballot in so I think to take that away is very shocking," Aaron Ponce said.
In their statement, Galvin and Walsh urged voters not to be intimidated by attempts to interfere with this election.
"We ask voters not to be intimidated by this bad act, and remain committed to making their voices heard in this and every election,” Walsh and Galvin said.
With federal authorities investigating the incident, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling and FBI Special Agent in Charge Joseph Bonavolonta said in a joint statement Sunday that "it is a top priority of our offices to help maintain the integrity of the election process in Massachusetts by aggressively enforcing federal election laws."
In their statement, Lelling and Bonavolonta said Massachusetts voters can feel confident in the success of the information sharing protocols that they have established in advance of the 2020 election.
"We remain fully committed to working with these partners to protect our communities as Americans exercise their right to vote," they wrote.
Lelling and Bonavolonta also said help from the public is vital to their effort, encouraging people to remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious, election-related activity.
Early voting began last Saturday in Massachusetts, and more than 2 million residents have already cast their ballots in person or by mail.
According to the Secretary of State's office, 2,209,350 voters have applied to vote by mail or voted early. As of 4 p.m. Sunday, 2,197,310 ballots had been provided and 1,600,525 ballots have been returned. That accounts for over 34% of the registered voters in the state.
In Boston alone, more than 166,000 people applied to vote by mail or voted early. Over 100,500 had returned their ballots as of Sunday.
The Boston Fire Department is asking anyone with information related to this ballot box arson investigation to contact them at 617-343-3324.